Common garden seeds often are genetically modified

Courtesy of morguefile.com

Courtesy of morguefile.com

by Elise Bunce

Seed catalogs are starting to trickle in. They are in a pile upstairs by the computer, in the bathroom, on the kitchen table and wherever else I might pause for a moment to peruse them. I am addicted to them. But there is one thing that makes it very easy for me to throw away a catalog without looking past page two.

I always look for the “Safe Seed Pledge,” and it must be easy to locate in the catalog. This way I am assured of the company’s commitment to seeds that are not genetically modified. The pledge reads:

“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.

“The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing are necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities.”

Due to concerns about the genetic engineering of seeds, the seed company High Mowing Organic Seeds initiated an alliance with nine other seed companies in 1996 to create the Safe Seed Pledge. Since then numerous farmers and seed companies have signed this pledge.

What are genetically altered seeds? Doesn’t it happen all the time when plants cross-pollinate? Here’s a very brief agronomy lesson.

Open pollinated seeds are produced from natural and random (key words here) pollination usually caused by wind, insects or birds. Similar species like squash to squash or stone fruit to stone fruit, cross-pollinate this way. This creates an expected diversity of plants and seeds.

Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been choosing and saving seed from the strongest, tastiest and most resistant plants Mother Nature has to offer. When cross-pollination is minimized, the seed collected from an open pollinated plant will produce offspring that resemble the parent plant.

Heirloom seed is seed from a cultivar that has been sustained for years by families and farmers. Some believe, however, that a variety can be considered an heirloom if it originated before the commercial introduction of hybrids in the 1950s. All heirloom seed is open pollinated.

Hybrid seeds come from a controlled pollination situation in which two different yet related plants can produce offspring with even better traits than their respective parents. Pluots, cantaloupes and tangelos are a few examples of hybridization.

Open pollination (by chance) and hybridization (a prearranged marriage) have made it possible to breed drought-resistant, pest-tolerant, more productive and more marketable varieties.

Plants grown from seed collected from a hybrid plant may not have the desired qualities of the hybrid parent. Seed of the hybrid varieties must be purchased from the company that developed the variety or markets them.

In the 1960s, the U.S started the “Green Revolution.” This was supposed to help poor farmers around the world grow more productive harvests by giving them hybrid seeds. These farmers were accustomed to saving seed. However, the saved seed did not reproduce a similar plant with all its wonderful “hybrid vigor.”

Therefore, every year these farmers had to purchase hybrid seeds from the agribusinesses that made them. Thousands of farmers lost everything they had due to the cost of the hybrid seed and the fertilizers needed to make them grow. It is estimated that by 1990, ninety-five percent of First World farmers and forty percent of all Third World farmers were using hybrid seeds.

So why is this important? Because in less than forty years, it is estimated the world lost seventy-five percent of its seed and food biodiversity because the same seed varieties were being sold around the world, reducing or eliminating the collection and planting of native varieties.

Seed saving for farmers became a thing of the past, allowing multinational agribusinesses to gain significant control of seed varieties. The ancient art of seed saving was vanishing worldwide.

Genetically modified organisms and seeds (GMOs) are made with fancy biotechnology, to insert DNA material from very different organisms, like bacteria and corn, creating a new organism.

This is called recombinant DNA technology and the new product, in this case a corn seed, is classified as a genetically modified organism. This crosses the species barrier.  Pollination by wind, birds, insects or hybridizing could not create this kind of genetic modification. Corn with corn DNA is one thing, corn and bacteria sharing DNA is another.

Monsanto’s genetically enhanced Bt corn seed is made from corn DNA inserted with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) DNA to construct a “built in” pesticide. Bt commonly is used in the gardening world to battle those pesky cabbage caterpillars and the European corn borer. Usually, Bt is sprayed on the plant, the leaves are then eaten by the caterpillar and the Bt bacteria grow in the insect’s gut which makes the bug very ill and eventually causes death. When the GMO corn seed is planted and grows, the Bt resides in every cell throughout the entire plant.

The public was assured the Bt would be broken down by digestion in humans, yet doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec in 2011 found the corn’s Bt-toxin in the blood of pregnant women, their babies, and in nonpregnant women, in a study which has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Reproductive Toxicology.

This is a major concern because we really do not know what will happen in the future to the plants, insects feeding on the plants, humans or the environment as a result of the introduction of GMO crops. There is no turning back.

The Supreme Court ruled corporations are allowed to patent their GMO life forms for commercial profit. Recently, an article in the Examiner reports:

“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled… the patent on genetically modified seeds extends to all future generations of those seeds. Even though plants are self-replicating, saving and replanting seed from patented varieties is deemed illegal.”

This allows GMO agribusinesses to claim “their” seed, wherever it grows, for the future of farming. For example, if cross-pollination occurs with corn grown by an organic farmer and his neighbor’s GMO corn, some of the organic farmer’s seed will belong to the GMO agribusiness. There have been lawsuits and organic farmers are losing the legal battle because agribusinesses own the DNA in the seed, and the seed the plant produces.

Again, we just don’t know what kind of ripple effect this will have on our own genetics, health, the future of farming or the planet. GMO seed is a small fragment of today’s GMO technology. Bacteria, yeast, insects, plants, fish and mammals are included in the list of GMO products.

Buying non-GMO seed is not complicated. GMO agribusinesses have been purchasing seed companies like crazy. Even if the seed you purchase is not GMO, you may be contributing to the profits of a GMO agribusiness. Research where your favorite varieties come from and who owns the name of the seed. You may wish to change your seed source or variety.

Once you know what seed catalogs to keep, throw the rest away or put them in the recycling bin. Enjoy the benefits of planting safe seeds in your garden this summer.

–Elise Bunce

Tips for supporting heirloom and organic seeds

• Look for the Safe Seed Pledge in your seed catalogs.

• Contact the people at your favorite seed catalogs and ask them whether they are in any way affiliated with a GMO agribusiness. If not, they will be very proud to tell you.

• Go online and search for seed companies and seed varieties not owned by GMO companies and support these companies.

• Go online and search for seed companies and seed varieties owned by GMO companies. You will be shocked.

• Look locally for seed and plant sources that support the Safe Seed Pledge.

• Visit http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org

• Support the labeling of all products containing GMOs.

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