At the conclusion of one of my recent talks, I was asked about “genetically modified” seeds. In the gardening world, this is something of a hot-button issue. Serious gardeners and horticulturists are concerned that big agri-businesses are making changes to seeds that will unleash a potentially dangerous plant into the environment. People in the industry whom I respect can get quite hot under the collar about this and accuse companies – and individuals – of being criminally irresponsible about this issue.
My first reaction to someone who is so upset he/she is shouting and making dire accusations is to step back from the issue and take a look at what facts exist. There are very few issues that are so clear-cut that it is unnecessary to take a few moments to think. This is what I am inviting you to do now – think about what is going on and how dangerous it is or is not. Below I have provided definitions in italics taken from the Home Gardening Seed Association (click here to see the full text), a fairly neutral source of information. After their definition, I have provided my views.
Heirloom Seed: An Open Pollinated (see explanation of OP) variety that has been in cultivation for 50 years or more. Heirloom varieties persisted because gardeners grew them successfully and shared seed within their gardening networks. In the herb world, the vast number of plants we grow can be considered heirlooms. These are the seeds that no one objects to – they are about as close to “wild” and untouched by modern techniques as you can get.
Open Pollinated (a.k.a. OP): Open-pollinated varieties are seeds that result from pollination by insects, wind, self-pollination (when both male and female flowers occur on the same plant) or other natural forms of pollination. In other words, this is what you get when you let nature take its course. These are also sometimes called heirloom plants because they are essentially the same as they were 100 years or more ago. Most herbs fall in this category. Notable exceptions are basil and scented geraniums which naturally contain a lot of genetic variability, allowing growers to develop plants with widely ranging looks and flavors.
Hybrid (F-1): An “ F-1”, or first generation hybrid occurs when a breeder selects two pure lines (plants that produce identical offspring when self-pollinated) and cross-pollinates them to produce a seed that combines desirable characteristics or “traits” from both parents. This is more commonly done with vegetables and ornamental annuals, where the desired trait is popular and the consumer is willing to pay a higher price for something that is more labor intensive to produce. F-1 hybrids are sometimes pollinated by hand. They also require more care in the growing phase to ensure that plants with the desired characteristic are all that is harvested. Any F-1 hybrid will NOT breed true from seed collected at home. This makes the consumer dependent on the seed company for each generation of F-1 hybrid plants they grow. In Third World countries, where people simply can not afford to buy new seeds every year, this is a problem.
Cultivar: The word cultivar derives from the term “cultivated variety,” which is described by the International Code of Nomenclature [the governing document for plant names] as an “assemblage of cultivated plants clearly distinguished by one or more characteristics, which, when reproduced, retains its distinguishing characteristics.” Anytime you see a plant with part of the name in single quotes, you are dealing with a cultivar. These may be open pollinated (so they will breed true from seed) or a hybrid.
So far, the types of seeds I’ve mentioned are regarded as safe, i.e. not likely to cause harm to environment (unless they become invasive, which is another issue altogether). Now for the more controversial topics….
GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) The USDA defines a GMO as an organism produced through any type of genetic modification, whether by high-tech modern genetic engineering, OR long time traditional plant breeding methods. I can modify a plan by selective breeding to get a taller stalk or bigger leaves. This aspect of GMO has been around for centuries and has given us seedless watermelons, tangelos, and nearly every type of basil available at the local plant nursery. Where it gets tricky is when plant scientists use gene splicing to create something not available through traditional pollination. If you’re splicing genes from two types of tomatoes to get a new variety, chances are you will not be creating an horticultural monster. The problem comes when you go beyond imitation of nature into unknown territory.
GE (Genetically Engineered): Genetic Engineering describes the high-tech methods used in recent decades to incorporate genes directly into an organism. The only way scientists can transfer genes between organisms that are not sexually compatible is to use recombinant DNA techniques. This is the technique that has some people quite worried about possible disastrous outcomes. The seeds scientists are developing are definitely “not natural” but are they safe to use? For example, they have created “corn modified with a naturally occurring soil bacterium for protection from corn borer damage (Bt-corn), and herbicide-resistant (“Roundup Ready”) soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and alfalfa.”
GE seeds are not something you and I will find at the local garden shop. They are currently only available to large agri-businesses. The question is “What if something dangerous is released into the environment?” This is a legitimate question for which we have no clear answer. The fears may be straight out of a sci-fi novel but they are nevertheless valid. Scientists really do not know the full consequences of their actions.
In contemplating this question I am reminded of the biggest fear of the 20th century – nuclear radiation. There is no doubt that radiation can be dangerous. Marie Curie, who first documented radiation, died from effects of her frequent exposure to X-rays and other radiation. The Doomsday weapons developed during World War II that still give us nightmares are based on this radiation. Yet today we X-ray damaged bones, consume radiation therapy to diagnose diseases and combat cancer, and have power plants fueled by radiation. We have learned how to use this dangerous phenomenon.
So what do I think about GE seeds? They are, to say the least, an unknown quantity – something that might provide great benefits but also great harm. The push to create GE seeds is fueled by a desire to solve agricultural problems. That may be a noble goal but those pursuing it should think carefully about what they are doing. In summary I would say:
Proceed With Caution