Tag Archives: GMO

OMG GMOs no. 1

Many of us have strong reactions to the word GMO and I would wager that many of those people do not understand why they feel so strongly about them or, even more fundamentally, what a GMO even is.

I felt that I understood what a GMO was and because I thought I knew what they were, I believed I had a choice to avoid them. However, my husband and I were recently at the Home Depot and I decided to get some last minute broccoli seeds. My husband was immediately drawn to these bright green packages that clearly stated non-GMO.  I wandered away from those packages because it was not clear whether they were Hybrids and they were not organic.  When I  went to the other side of the seed display and saw the organic offerings of a large seed company, I noticed that there were no non-GMO claims on the label. Nonetheless, I felt confident that home garden seeds had not been breached by genetic modification and that my husband was confusing hybrids, or traditional plant breeding, with genetic modification.  I insisted that I was not at risk of getting GMO seeds even if it did not say so on the label and I was pretty sure that organic meant that it was not GMO.  But a tiny part of me wasn’t exactly sure.  I was making a lot of assumptions and I hate not being right, so I thought I would explore.  And it turns out that this is going to be a 2 or 3-parter… because the background part got really long.  I hope you come back for more!

In order to delve into this question on the non-GMO-ness of garden vegetable seeds, let’s first take a step back and figure out what GMO means. GMO stands for gentically modified organism. You so totally knew that, I know. But just in case you wanted to read this to your seven year old, I am going ultra basic here. The scientific field in which this happens is called recombinant technology or biotechnology. Other terms are Genetic Engineering and BioEngineering.  These are all terms that should make you perk up and pay attention. In general, in relation to plants, the genetically modified (GM) industry explains that biotechnology is the creation of plants with traits that you cannot develop from traditional plant breeding.  The non-GM people tend to agree with that. They tend to believe that traditional or conventional plant breeding ascribes to the laws of nature.

But this is the part that I find confusing and the line that I do not think is entirely clear.  It is also the part that I think weakens the non-GMO argument.   The problem, you see, is that anti-GMOers keep wanting to argue that traditional plant breeding creates plants in a natural way or that plant-breeding is a gentle science, allowing plants to live their lives and just waiting to see what might happen. Certainly, it can work that way.   This article I came across describes organic plant breeding and shows that this type of plant selection can be very gentle.  It can also take years and years.  It soon becomes clear why plant breeders might not have enough patience to just wait and see what happens. More than that, plant breeders want or need to create new plants.  Historically, breeding might have happened the in the field where we might have been after plants that performed well under stressful conditions such as longer periods without rain, periods with too much rain, too hot, to cold, etc.  These were conditions that would have occurred naturally and the plants that survived those conditions would be selected either intentionally or because it was the only thing growing.  But breeders have not stopped at natural conditions to cause stress. They have subjected plants to gamma rays, x-rays, thermal neutrons (whatever those are), and radiation–all to induce mutations.  For an eye-popping list, click here.   There’s a lot of fruit on that list.

Beyond just mutating genes, breeders also develop new plants by crossing between existing plants.  And, again, non-GMOers tend to argue that breeding creates plants that obey the laws of nature and that plant breeding is really just establishing an environment that encourages or speeds up natural crosses between varieties or species. But that is not accurate.  Plant breeding is not necessarily gentle and plant breeders cross plants that would never naturally cross. Plant breeders, in fact, breed hybrids between plant genera as well as plant species.  Because Biology class was probably a long, long time ago, this is how life breaks down:

Now, plant breeding can be gentle, such as the pollen of one variety of tomato getting brushed on the lady parts of another variety.  These tomatoes are in the same species and this cross might happen naturally with bees busily buzzing around.  But that is not what breeding is limited to. Breeders create new plants by crossing between species all the time. Think plums and apricots (pluots)-both species in the genus prunus.  Scientists seem to support that this can happen naturally–or, at least that it is fairly easy to do.  However, breeders don’t stop there. Crosses in the plant world between genera are referred to as wide crosses, and plant breeders do this with some regularity as well. After a relatively short search, I found several examples of wide crosses and even discovered an easy way to identify intergeneric crosses. (See this article.)  The author of that article explains that “[f]or plants from different genera to successfully cross, they must share the same chromosome number and enough similarity in their DNA sequence to match up in enough places to create a viable seed. Intergeneric hybrids … are relatively rare in the plant kingdom as a whole. I know of no examples where they occurred without the helping hand of man.”

This article, which I will admit is so technical it made my eyes cross, demonstrates that crossing genera is not exactly natural. The wide cross made here required that embryos from the two plants were dissected and then plated on HLH medium–I’m not really sure what that is, but it certainly was something that helped recombine the embryos since without help that embryo would not have survived to form a seedling.  This article explained that it can take a lot of effort to make an embryo viable.  This type of crossing–really, any type of crossing–is, in some form, recombinant.  In an enthusiastic defense of conventional plant breeding and its differences from genetic engineering (GE) this author argues that, “while wide crosses, as breeders perform them, do not occur in nature, they represent only a slight stretching of the boundaries of what can occur in nature. In a sense wide crosses represent a stretching of these boundaries by inches compared to miles with GE. After all, with GE, one can mix genes not only from widely different plant families, one can put genes from any organism on earth, or can create genes which have not existed before and put them, into plants.”  This defense highlights the slipper slope of the debate.  They are essentially saying that stretching the bounds of nature somewhat is okay, but not too much.

And this is where I think that the arguments start to weaken against GMOs.  I don’t say this as a proponent of GMOs, but as a proponent of putting arguments out there that can’t be so easily refuted.  Non-GMOers should stop saying that plant-breeding is okay because it is obeys the laws of nature.  Most wide crosses would simply never, ever naturally exist, no matter how close together you put the plants you were trying to cross and no matter how long you waited for them to cross. The Non-Gmo project defines GMOs as “living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”   It is only the second part of this definition that separates GMOs from traditional plant breeding, since we have established that traditional plant breeding created organisms by manipulating their genes in a lab.  It isn’t even the unstable, natural part in the second sentence that separates the two sciences, since traditional plant breeding creates unstable plants all the time that do not occur in nature.  It really just comes down to the combination of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that don’t occur in nature. That last clause leads me to to ask, “Well, what combinations of those genes do occur in nature?” An article published on June 20, 2013 in The Scientist Magazine claimed that a University of Maryland School of Medicine Study found strong evidence that bacteria transfer their genes into human genomes.  Another article in The Scientist Magazine published much more recently states that horizontal gene transer “definitely can happen and has happened during evolution, and has played a role in shaping functional diversity of the gene repertoire in metazoans.” Accordingly, there is already, historically, some combination of bacteria and animal DNA that occurs in nature.

After all this research, I can honestly say that I am not a fan of GMOs, though my reasons are more solidly in the agricultural-ecological-economical camp. I am just not buying the whole science of it.  The strongest argument I have come across is that we need more research because the way the DNA is introduced in GMO plants is unnatural and random and the consequences of re-sequencing of DNA  in this way is unknown.  This is the strongest argument because the results are, well, unknown… but they could be benign, they cold be harmful.    But, one of my first thoughts when hearing this argument is that randomly inserting genetic material just sounds like another mutation, which is just a change in the DNA–often an unpredictable change.  And mutations caused by stress, disease, and even radiation seem to be accepted as okay.   It seems to me that, if an apple tree developed a mutation that led to a desirable fruit, we would likely graft that apple tree and sell it.  But we probably wouldn’t question how the rearranging of DNA in that apple would affect our bodies.  Research into how GMO plants affect our bodies should be done because we need to know how anything we eat affects out bodies.  However, I don’t know that research will show that it is bad for you or changes anything in your body.  Again, it is not necessarily a science argument that sways me from GMOs.  It is the economic and agricultural devastation that they are wreaking and the poisons they require to grow.  I plant to discuss that in the third part of this series.

In the next segment, I will actually get around to discussing whether vegetable seeds are GMO even if they are not labeled GMO.  Your comments are more than welcome.  However, I know that people get very heated about this topic, so please remain civil.

 

Additional Sources:

http://www.ofrf.org/sites/ofrf.org/files/Introduction_to_On-farm_Organic_Plant_Breeding.pdf

http://www.bats.ch/bats/publikationen/1995-1_TA/2-methods.php

http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/05/17/organic-101-can-gmos-be-used-in-organic-products/

https://books.google.com/books?id=cT9uAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA164&lpg=PA164&dq=dissecting+plant+embryos+for+breeding&source=bl&ots=Q8Rw1i73u7&sig=dy-3wTPN5dcfXGQe-jzm0crycVg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=6N1DVfXRIcXegwSIsYHYBA&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=dissecting%20plant%20embryos%20for%20breeding&f=false

http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2013/07/30/the-intensifying-debate-over-genetically-modified-foods/

http://monsantoblog.com/2009/04/13/gmo-vegetables-animal-dna/

 

 

When I think of a genetically modified organism in terms of plants, I think of a plant that has had genetic material from non-plants.

Are hybrids genetically modified? In a strict sense, yes.

 

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Seed me, Seymour!

I just put in a big seed order at seedsavers.org. Big enough to wonder how long it will take to actually get ahead in the whole I-grow-my-own-food-and-save-money thing. But I have so many plans! So many. Not only are we seriously expanding our “production” this year but idea is to invest in plants that I grow and eat now, and also cultivate and save seeds for next year. (Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas!)

That’s one of the reasons I ordered pricier seeds from seedsavers.org–you can’t save hybrid seeds. Well, you can save them, they will just break your heart over and over again. So I’ve heard. To be honest, I didn’t completely understand why this was. I just drank the kool-aid and repeated that little nugget as if I knew what I was talking about. So I did some scholarly-type research on the Google.  I came across a couple of articles, coincidentally on the Seed Saver site, and thought they were a good starting point.  If interested, check out this article that was useful and straightforward and this other article that was a bit more complex but a pretty good and short read.

The gist of it is that hybrids are really controlled inbred plants. In the lab or field, two plants with a very narrow gene pool are crossed to produce a seed with the chosen, desired characteristics of the two parents.  The key word is controlled. Very smart scientist-type people who understand a lot of stuff about genes know which traits are dominant and which traits are recessive.  The parents will be selected for desired traits that will come through, either because one parent has the desired dominant characteristic or because both parents have the desired recessive characteristic.  The child of that coupling gets planted and grows, resulting in a plant that has the desired, controlled traits of mama and papa plant.  BUT… now that little hybrid plant has been let loose like a college girl on spring break.  There are untold numbers of influences out there–some good, some bad, some that are very nice, but just not that exciting.  That innocent little hybrid plant is vulnerable to any local yahoo indiscriminately spreading his dirty pollen wherever it will land.  This is called Open Pollination (OP)–which is actually a good thing in the plant world–and on Melrose Place.  So when that hybrid plant makes it seeds, those seeds carry who-knows-what genetic traits.  The site www.victoryseeds.com explains that if you want to  “save [corn] seeds for future planting, considerations must be made to prevent cross-pollination…. [Corn] uses the wind to distribute its pollen from the tassels of one plant to the developing ears of another.” In order to “maintain the genetic purity of a cultivar, that is, keeping the variety true-to-type, great isolation distances are required.  Depending on climate and geographical features in your area, separating varieties by up to one mile is required.”

Okay, so why does this work with OP seeds and not seeds from hybrid plants. The oversimplified answer is that you allow natural selection for your area to win out.  The seeds that you share likely already have some genetic markers that will make it dominant and vigorous over whatever else is out there.  Whereas Hybrid plant seeds have very narrow genetic traits and there is nothing about them designed to thrive in your environment.  Hybrid seeds are bred for certain characteristics–i.e, fruit size and yield– that are not conducive to environmental factors, meaning that they require a lot of help in the form of pesticides and water to survive. They are not tough because they have not had to survive season after season fighting the course of natural selection. They are delicate little lab creations that often require substantial assistance.  The off-spring of those hybrids, tend to be weaker and less adaptive, since their gene pool has been severely reduced.  There is a lot less diversity and, as a consequence, if you plant the seeds from hybrid plants you might get a few good plants over the course of hundreds of seeds.

Planting the seeds of hybrid plants essentially sets you back to the beginning of time.  Okay, slight exaggeration.  But, this is kind of the first step for farmers who have historically cultivated seeds going back hundreds of years. Dr. John Navazio in the above-referenced article tells a story about tomatoes that explains this process.  The tomatoes that were brought over to Europe several hundred years ago from the Americas were all cherry-tomato sized.  Somewhere between 200 and 300 years ago–after Europeans got over the idea that tomatoes were poisonous–farmers began selecting their desired traits.  The tomatoes “disseminated across the landscape in very diverse climates and were selected for new varieties by the humans who decided to give them the extra effort and domesticate them, the climatic influence that is natural selection, and then good old recombination in genetic terms. … How did they go from cherry tomatoes to these big beefsteaks in just 200-300 years? ….Every farmer, every eater, was a seed grower and they were totally tuned in to watching for variation and picking the best. It was plant breeding at its best by people who were in tune.”

This, of course, is what plant breeders try and speed up and control–with much success.  It would not now take 200 years to develop a beefsteak tomato from cherry tomatoes.  However, what you can’t get from hybrid is the genetic diversity to be resilient to your area.  So getting to the point where you have seeds that produce a general specific plant is just the first step.  The next is to plant it in your yard/garden/farm. Locally sourced, open pollinated seeds are genetically resilient. They are “adapted to the challenges of the specific geographic regions where they came from because there was always … strong natural selection on the material. People were not pampering it, people were not watering it with sophisticated irrigation, and so when you put plants under stress … you really start to see the variation. Then you have an opportunity to work in concert with natural selection if you care to improve your crops just like our ancestors did.”

I know…this topic is a bit mind-boggling.  My husband said it was too technical.  I think he lost interest pretty early on.  Though to be fair to me–and plants–he loses interest pretty quickly in most things early on.  However, I really wanted to understand why hybrids were not good source material for seeds.  And I wanted to try and explain it in a way that made sense.  I hope you stuck with me.

A company like Seed Savers sells seeds of plants that you can in turn collect seeds from or otherwise propagate with a high rate of success. They also sell non-gmo, untreated seeds with a huge collection of organic seeds. They promote and encourage heirloom varieties and encourage communities to exchange their own seeds. I’m in! I hope you are, too, and that we can start trading seeds.  Now… we have all learned that your seeds might not be the perfect seeds for my area, but that if they are open pollinated, they should at least produce enough diversity to result in some plants that are vigorous for my geographic region.   And then I can collect the seeds from those vigorous plants the next year–and so on and so on.  As Dr. Navazio explains, “Genetic resources need to be preserved and carefully managed. But they do constantly co-evolve with the humans who select them and who use them. If you have vital varieties that really work for people, that really feed people, then there is a constant interplay of the farmer, the variety, and selection, both natural and farmer selection, as well as adapting to all of these changes.”

What are you growing this year?

Thought for Food

Several months ago I wrote an article extolling what an awesome grocery shopper I was. I boasted that my husband and I were rocking the $100.00 a week budget we set, even including toiletries, pet food, and alcohol. In that article, I wrote that “[t]he choices to substitute good, healthy choices with even better, healthier choices has to be deliberate and strategic.” What I meant was that while we were buying lots of whole grains, produce and meat at the grocery store, we were not at all concerned about organic, free-range, hormone-free, pasture-raised, etc. We were being good citizens, but not great ones. I wrote then that in order to stick to the budget we could not really put any organic, grass-fed, free-range, local items in the shopping cart since eco-friendly and organic usually meant wallet unfriendly. To have done so would have meant either buying, like, five things or blowing the $100.00 budget–or so I thought.

One night–I believe it was in late spring–my husband watched a documentary. These things happen when you cancel cable and get bored and start to flip through Hulu. You watch documentaries. That documentary happened to be Food Inc. and he was horrified. Rather precipitously, he decided we were done with buying food at the grocery store. He also caught a great TED talk by Vicki Robin that summed up many of the ironies and foibles of our current food industry. He then decided we were going to eat local. Local and organic–and all the other adjectives that really only serve to equal expensive?! I looked at him like he was nuts. He is nuts, actually. Not because he wanted to shop differently, but because he though we could do it still for $100 a week. I laughed. I mean, that was what had gotten us into the $800 a month grocery tabs–the increasing number of trips to Whole Foods and Trader Jo’s, dabbling in organics, and starting to care about hormones (Not mine–which are completely in balance, dear husband–but the ones they inject into all the animals we eat). He said, “Let’s just try it.” I rather smugly said fine, you go to the farmer’s market and see how much food you can buy for the week.

I forget what produce he came back with, but I do remember that he brought back a whole chicken. It cost about $16 and was frozen solid. I think this and a pound of ground turkey for $10 was the only meat he managed to get. So… almost $30 for about four pounds of meat. I think in total he spent about $50 between meat and produce. Sounds pretty good, right? Except, we still needed supplies and food for the cats, general toiletries, dairy, bread, pasta, and random “exotics” such as rice, olive oil, and bananas. And he really didn’t get that much food.

Back to this chicken. Previously, I would get a chicken for roasting when they were on sale for around $2-$3 from the grocery store. At that price, you don’t feel bad about roasting the whole thing and having it for one meal. However, at $16 for one smallish chicken, the damn thing has to stretch for 3-4 meals. My husband handed it over like I would automatically know what to do with it.

Well, of course I did. I was just annoyed that it meant a lot of work for me. It was the beginning of what I now call my Sunday “homesteading.” To work with this damn chicken, I had to partially defrost it enough for me to take apart the pieces. Luckily it was a “cut-up” whole chicken which meant that I didn’t have to hack it apart. Once it was defrosted enough to pull apart, I had the breast bone and ribs, two leg quarters, two wings and some on other bony part. I took the breasts off the bone and put them in the refrigerator for one meal, stuck the thighs and wings in the crock pot for another meal and got out my largest pot to make chicken stock/soup. I did manage to get 3-4 meals out of the little sucker, but it took hours to prepare!

After many, many months of undergoing this transition, we have done a pretty good job at staying around $100.00, though we are probably closer to an average of $110.00 per month. Not bad. Especially when you consider that our dairy alone is 20%-25% of the budget. We spend more on meat and eat less of it. And I get really creative with grains, beans and produce. Especially now in the lean Winter months. We have established certain rules that are still changing with the intent of finding local providers or better choices for those items that we still buy at the grocery store. Currently, we do not buy meat from the grocery store, though we continue to shop at the grocery store for some fruit that does not grow here, like bananas and avocados, and also for pet food and supplies, tea, coffee and natural peanut butter and jelly, etc. We even found that our local grocery store carries a few local, healthy products, like bread and honey. There are many things that we would prefer to buy local, but have not been able to find a reliable vendor, such as pasta and pasta sauce. I intended to have so many tomatoes this year that I would have a ton of freezer sauce on hand, but the weather and lack of experience in gardening conspired against me. I even tried making pasta once, and found that it was fairly easy, but time consuming. However, that is really the trick to eating really well on a budget–you spend a lot of time preparing and cooking. Like I mentioned above, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen on Sundays. Though I enjoy it, it takes up a lot of time. Did I mention it was time-consuming?

On the bright side, I am no longer daunted by making chicken soup from bones and I can make one 1 pound chicken breast stretch for three great meals. My husband, who previously refused to eat asparagus and squash, has gotten more adventurous in eating, which I very much appreciate. He even accepts that we will probably eat a completely vegetarian meal at least once, if not twice, a week, and that the remainder of our meals will have less meat in general. Best of all, on most days this past summer and fall, we can look at our dinner plate and know that almost everything we were eating was grown within 50 miles of our home–and more and more was grown by our own hands.

We’ll continue to get better at this as time goes on but we have made an excellent start and we have learned so much about where our food comes from. We have gotten to know local food growers and have started to pay attention to what is going on in the food industry. I am not a non-GMO, anti-Monsanto fanatic, but I do have a deep appreciation for farmers growing food to feed the local population and I feel that we need to support that. If you are not already supporting your local producers, start now!

The easiest first step (ala Vicki Robin–you really should watch that TED talk ,it is short and funny) is to go to your grocery store and figure out which local, small producers have made it to your grocer’s shelves. Even in places like Whole Foods and Food Co-ops, this is surprisingly small. I know that our grocery store carries local honey and bread. Your purchasing power carries a lot of weight and the more those items fly off the shelf, the more the grocery store will carry local items. You can even request that your grocery store carry a certain local product.

Second, visit your farmers market and/or check out your local CSA (community supported agriculture). You may have to do some basic research on which vendors actually grown their own food (just because it shows up at the farmer’s market, doesn’t mean that it was grown locally.) Support those farmers that had their hands in the dirt that morning to cut your fresh head of cabbage. To do this, you will probably have to understand what is in season. A vendor in Illinois that has cucumbers in March probably did not grown it himself/herself. Don’t forget checking out your local agri-tourism industries such as the places you can pick apples or strawberries.

Finally, grow or find your own food! Replace your useless ornamental bushes with bushes of herbs or fruits. Plant fruit trees. Start or expand the garden, or include vegetables interspersed with the flowers.

If you have started a shift from blindly buying items at the grocery store, I would love to hear some of your accumulated knowledge and experiences.