So last week I provided information about open pollinated vs. hybrid seed and a little history of hybrid crops in the United States. This week I would like to delve into issues concerning GMO and heirloom seed. I’ll start with heirloom seeds because they are the less controversial of the two, although the definition of heirloom can be a bit of a touchy subject for some seed connoisseurs.
Heirloom: There is no exact definition for what constitutes an heirloom seed, but at least one thing that all growers seem to agree on is that all heirloom seeds are open-pollinated. The following defining aspects of heirloom seeds are contested from one grower to the next but will give you a general idea of what makes a seed an heirloom variety. If you find a seed that is marketed as heirloom it is probably a Non-hybrid variety introduced prior to 1940 (seeds must be at least 50 yrs old), that likely has a long history of being cultivated and saved within a family or group in a certain region. Heirloom seeds are beneficial because they are usually well adapted to their region, and are genetically distinct because they have evolved within their own ecological niche for many years and have not been modified or crossed with other varieties. Heirloom seeds can be bred for tolerance of insects, disease, and drought etc. However, once an heirloom variety disappears it is usually completely extinct.
GMO: A genetically modified organism is an organism with genetic characteristics that have been altered by the insertion of a modified gene or a gene from another organism using techniques of genetic engineering (think lab coats, microscopes, eye droppers, and really complicated computer programs). Genetic modification is carried out for the purpose of improving an organism or correcting a defect in the organism. In the case of seeds, certain genes that will supposedly make growing easier and crop yield higher are inserted into the seed’s DNA. All GM crops available on the international market today have been designed using one of three basic traits: resistance to insect damage; resistance to viral infections; and tolerance towards certain herbicides. So, there are potential benefits to the production and use of GM seed but there is also a great cost that comes with the use of this seed, and once again taking into account that we are a bit biased about the seed we choose, it is a cost that we feel outweighs the benefits.
The introduction of GM seeds to farming and food production is a relatively recent event in the history of the U.S. It was only in 1987 that the first field tests of genetically engineered crops (tobacco and tomato) were conducted in the United States. In 1992 Calgene’s Favr Tomato, engineered to remain firm for a longer period of time, was the first crop approved for commercial production by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was also in 1992 that the FDA declared genetically engineered food as “not inherently dangerous” and not requiring special regulation. Statistics now show that 88% of corn in the United States is planted with GM seed and upwards of 80% of processed food sold in the United States contains GM ingredients.
So what’s wrong with using GM seed for food crops if the benefits in yield and product consistency are so great? The greatest downfall of GM seed is that it allows the entire process of farming to be consolidated into the hands of large corporations and seed companies such as Monsanto, a Fortune 500 Company that has 404 facilities in 66 countries. All GM seed is patented by the companies that have developed it, so even if the crops produce viable seed, it is illegal for farmers to save seed at all, much less plant next year’s crops with it. What’s even more alarming is the fact that through distribution of seed and pollen by birds and wind, GM seed crops can cross pollinate non GM crops that are located nearby. Seed Company researchers are then covertly testing the crops of many farmers for presence of GM genes. If the crops being tested were planted from non-patented seed or are being used to save seed, any trace of the GM gene that is found will make the farmer liable to a lawsuit for patent infringement. This means that farmers who never planted GM seed crops can suffer legal ramifications for saving seed from crops that they own the full rights to.
To illustrate the power that large seed companies have here are a couple facts about Monsanto and it’s tactics as a large agricultural company. Monsanto’s seed monopoly has grown so powerful that they control the genetics of nearly 90% of five major commodity crops including corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets. According to the Public Patent Foundation, Monsanto has one of the most aggressive patent assertion agendas in history. Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto admits to filing 144 lawsuits against America’s family farmers, while settling another 700 out of court for undisclosed amounts. But I digress, back to GM seed and its possible ill effects. In addition to political and economic factors GM seed can also affect the health of animals, humans, and the environment. Because GM seed is still a relatively new product, there are no long term studies of the ways in which introducing these new varieties into the environment affects the ecosystem. We also aren’t privy to information about the ill effects of GM seed because the large companies that own seed patents have restricted independent research concerning the possible consequences of tampering with the natural makeup of seeds. Despite this lack of publicly available research there have been several small scale studies which have slipped through the cracks to report that certain species of insects are being killed by the toxins used in GM corn and other animals that come in contact with the crops are suffering ill effects such as infertility and digestive problems. So we can only wonder, if animals who come in contact with GM crops suffer ill health effects, what will the health of humans who consume a diet consisting of high amounts of processed foods, which contain GM ingredients, look like in the next several decades?
As far as the qualifications that we feel the seed we order should meet, the last one is that the seed must be untreated. Maggie wrote about treated seed in a previous blog post so I will refer you there for further information: http://growappalachia.blogspot.com/2011/11/pretty-in-pink-pine-mountain-maggie.html
Here are a couple movies that investigate the history and current use of GM crops and how they affect large scale farms, small private farms, seed companies, and the American Consumer:
Harvest of Fear
Here is an interesting article about Monsanto, its history and questionable ethics: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/05/monsanto200805
And lastly an article about seed quality and the way a seed company evaluates their product before selling it: http://www.seedsofchange.com/enewsletter/issue_49/seed_quality.aspx
Next week: the least mind boggling and last of the Seed Time series: What other factors help us decide which seed to order; tradition, taste, ease of growing, the pretty picture in the seed catalog?