Anyone who knows me understands that I am violently opposed to genetically engineered or modified foods, particularly prevalent in vegetable and fruit crops. My good, but misguided, friend Jim Jangcuster, who works for the Alabama Extension Service, thinks I am wrong. He feels these types of crops are necessary to feed the booming population of the world. I believe that the opposite will eventually happen when the naturally biodiversity of the planet has been irreparably damaged by these good (and greedy) intentions.
Almost all federal and state government agencies, including the land grant research universities that house the Extension Services for each state and are receiving federal funding, are beholden to the federal government’s policies. These policies are, in turn, dictated by the giant agribusiness firms like Monsanto. So-called sustainable agriculture gets lip service and a fraction of the budgets. Those organizations are used as propaganda so the government can claim to be concerned about ecologically responsible farming. But, even most of the non-governmental agencies (NGO) that have been thrown a piece of the tiny pie, have been co-opted. I know, I’ve been there and actually been blackballed because I called them out (RAFI-USA comes immediately to mind). Even the venerable Patrick McFadden was co-opted.
I recall a meeting in the early 1990s as the Georgia representative to the Southern Sustainable Agriculture
Working Group. This organization was sponsored by USDA and involved numerous NGO representatives. I was from the University of Georgia, but not associated with Extension. The topic of discussion was the development of federally mandated organic standards. The NGO reps were all salivating because they saw a new income stream from certification fees, they weren’t concerned about the expenses to small farmers struggling to make ends meet. I was the only one who commented that supporting any type of national organic standards was a bad idea. If the government controlled what was organic, that word would cease to have any true meaning. My words have largely been proven correct. An attorney from a Minnesota environmental group approached me afterward and thanked me for my comment, that he had never thought of that before and he felt it wise. I appreciated that, but organic standards were eventually adopted and are controlled by USDA. It has not been good for most true organic farmers except for big coops like Organic Valley (who produce truly organic products). But, many operations produce products that are organic in name only.
But, I digress. The point of that story is that one cannot blindly trust what the agribusiness firms and their government spokespeople, USDA and Extension tell you about what is good for agriculture and the planet, and especially about what it will take to feed a growing population.
One argument often used is that all crops are and have been genetically modified. That is true, but it is doublespeak. Most people are so distanced from where their food comes from, they don’t understand how crops are improved and changed traditionally versus modern genetic engineering.
There are three classes of seed (we will ignore non-seed producing plants and animals for now):
- Traditional open pollinated crops
- Hybrid crops
- Genetically modified (engineered) organisms (GMO)
Traditional open pollinated crops
Heirloom crops are often associated with the open pollinated group and, indeed, they are. But, not all open pollinated crops are heirlooms. I make no distinction between the two, heirlooms are generally older varieties that have been saved through the years by growers in relatively pure form due to some desirable characteristics the grower sees in them or just to preserve their biodiversity, all laudable reasons that should continue to be encouraged. The key, and a very important key it is, is that these seeds save true. Seeds saved from these crops will produce identical plants when planted next season. This is of extreme importance, especially for poor farmers who have limited funds to purchase seeds every year. Usually, the best seeds are saved for next year. And, think about it, one corn seed can produce hundreds of new corn seeds. Only a relatively small percentage of seed must be saved. The others may be sold, eaten or fed to animals. By selection of only the best seeds, those from plants possessing the most desirable characteristics, genetic modification is taking place via selection. All changes occurring are natural and occur in nature. Human selection only hastens the development of naturally occurring desirable traits.
Hybrids are a bit different, but they are produced using a natural process. With hybrids, breeders cross breed compatible species or varieties of plants in an attempt to produce a new cross that combines desirable traits from both parent plants. Hybridization of seeds may be called genetic modification, as well, but such modifications can, and does, also occur naturally. Again, human plant breeders speed up and direct this natural process, but it is a natural process. The problem with hybrids is that, while a hybrid crop will usually cross pollinate, the resulting seeds will not normally produce the same plant as their parents. If you have ever planted saved hybrid seeds, you usually got something strange and inedible. Hybrids pose issues for farmers because one cannot save seed and many are patented, making it illegal to save seed and try to normalize them over time (something that may be done in many cases).
Genetically modified (engineered) organisms (GMO)
GMOs are an entirely different animal, no pun intended. These are crops (or animals) that have been genetically modified via no natural means, but rather through unnatural techniques such as protein engineering and gene splicing. Genes from completely incompatible species are introduced into the foods we eat.