Today, seeds are bred in only one of three ways: 1. in a pollinated environment, 2. through a hybrid cross, and 3. through direct DNA modification in a lab. Let’s look at each one.
HYBRID SEEDS – HEIRLOOM SEEDS – GMO SEEDS
Hybrid Seeds. Heirloom seeds. Genetically-modified (GM) seeds. These labels can be confusing to people. Farmers and gardeners have been cross-breeding seeds for thousands of years. It’s a rather common thought by government agencies and industry companies that “GMOs are perfectly safe”. This is not true and it’s time to get our facts straight!
HYBRID SEEDS: WHAT ARE THEY?
Using selective breeding, farmers and gardeners have been cultivating new plant varieties for thousands of years. This was done by cross-pollinating two different, but related plants over 6 to 10 plant generations, eventually creating a new plant variety.
Patience during the process is hard, but rewarding. By selectively cross-pollinating related plants in this way, farmers could create varieties that were healthier and stood up to the farmer’s micro-climate — their soil, their weather patterns, their predatory insects.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Darwin and Mendel found a method of controlled crossing that can create these desired traits within just one generation. This method produces F1 hybrid seeds. These hybrid seeds are just as natural as their historic counterparts; they’re still cross-pollinating two different, but related plants.
HYBRID SEEDS: THE CONSEQUENCES
The biggest disadvantage of hybrid seeds is that they don’t reproduce the same in the second generation. If seeds produced by F1 hybrid plants are saved and planted, the plant variety that grows from those 2nd generation seeds may or may not share the desired traits you selected for when creating the first generation hybrid seed.
When two dissimilar varieties are crossed, the result is a hybrid which will often be bigger, brighter, faster-growing or higher-yielding than either of its parents, which is the idea behind it. Subsequent generations don’t have the same vigour or uniformity. Don’t save seeds from it, you just throw them away and buy more to start the next crop. This will set you back some when buying new seeds, but the seed companies make money on them and consequently gain increasing control of what we buy and grow.
There may not be anything inherently wrong with this process, however it does keep you dependent on seed companies year after year since you can’t save your seeds and expect the next generation you grow to be identical to the first. While this may be a small nuisance to a home gardener, it can be devastating to subsistence farmers around the world.
In fact, according to an article in Small Footprint Family, this is exactly what happened. When the peasant farmers grew these new hybrids, they were indeed more productive, even though they required more fertilizer and water. But when they collected and saved the seed for replanting the next season—as they had done for generations and generations—none of it grew true to the parent crop, little food grew, and these poor farmers, having none of their open-pollinated traditional varieties left viable, had no choice but to go back to the big companies to purchase the hybrid seeds again for planting year after year.
U.S. companies like Cargill intentionally disrupted the traditional cycle of open-pollinated seed saving and self-sufficiency to essentially force entire nations to purchase their seeds, and the agricultural chemicals required to grow them. Most of these poor subsistence farmers never had to pay for seed before, and could not afford the new hybrid seeds, or the new petrochemical fertilizers they required, and were forced to sell their farms and migrate to the cities for work. This is how the massive, infamous slums of India, Latin America, and other developing countries were created.
By the 1990s an estimated 95% of all farmers in the First World and 40% of all farmers in the Third World were using Green Revolution hybrid seeds, with the greatest use found in Asia, followed by Mexico and Latin America. The world lost an estimated 75 percent of its food biodiversity, and control over seeds shifted from farming communities to a handful of multinational corporations.
How experts define heirlooms can vary, but typically they are at least 50 years old, and are often pre-WWII varieties. Most heirlooms come from seed that has been handed down for generations in a particular region or area, hand-selected by gardeners for a special trait. Others may have been developed by a university a long time ago (again, at least 50 years), in the early days of commercial breeding. All heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. In addition, they tend to remain stable in their characteristics from one year to the next.
Genetically Modified Crops: should we be worried?
Genetically modified (GM) crops are produced through a procedure involving transgene insertion plus tissue culture. This is a highly mutagenic method that is completely different from conventional plant breeding and does not involve natural sexual reproduction methods. Adding to that, it allows the transfer of one or more genes between -totally unrelated organisms- crossing species barriers to reproduction in ways that do not (or would not) occur naturally.
Strawberries are strawberries, potatoes are potatoes, right? With Genetically Modified (GM) you can transfer a gene from any organism that you’d like. This includes bacteria, viruses, and unrelated plants and animals. The results are it allows combinations of genes that have never evolved to work together in a harmonious integrated manner.
At the time when GM crops were developed in the early 1980s, our understanding of GM crops was very rudimentry. Genes then were considered as isolated units of information and as a result they could be transferred between species with what they thought was total predictability. We have now found this is not the case. We now know organization in DNA not to be random and no gene works in isolation. Genes function as integrated wholes within a given organism or context. Therefore, when you take a gene from one organism and randomly insert it into the DNA of a totally unrelated organism, you’re placing a gene in an environment where it has not evolved to work in an integrated manner with the surrounding genes in that organism. As a result of that, GM brings with it an unpredictable component in terms of gene function.
In addition to that, the GM transformation process, as a whole, is highly mutigenic – it produces damage in the DNA throughout the geno or the totality of the DNA of the plant. So what we have is a situation where the combination of effects of the GM transformation process. The combinations of normal genes that would normally not come together plus the general destructive effect or mutegenic effect of the GM transformation process, combined always to a greater or lesser degree, destruct the biochemistry of the protein and biochemistry of the plant. If you disturb that, you run the risk of producing new toxins and new allergens and a disturbed autonutritonal value of the food which is a measured and proven phenomenon. This is why we need to thoroughly evaluate GM foods. We just don’t know for sure the chronic and long term toxicity effects. In the United States they’re a totally deregulated product where they are generally recognized as perceived as safe and no testing is needed.
Roundup Ready crops
Roundup Ready crops are crops genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup. Roundup is the brand-name of a herbicide produced by Monsanto.
Beyond drought and hail, insects and weeds lie the worst threats to agricultural crops. It’s not surprising that pests were the first to be targeted by genetic engineers.
In the 1980s, Monsanto produced the powerful herbicide Roundup. It works by disrupting the action of an enzyme that is found in almost all plants but not in humans. The problem was how to apply Roundup to the plants that you don’t want and keep it off the plants you do – get it on the weeds while keeping it away from the crops. That’s tough to do, so farmers were using Roundup early in the growing season to kill weeds that sprouted before the crops, and then switching to less powerful herbicides after the crops germinated.
Genetic engineers wondered if they could find a gene that would allow crops to survive and even thrive when they are exposed to Roundup. The reasoning was that the pesticide worked on enzymes, and enzymes are proteins that are produced by genes – therefore, there might be a gene that could protect the crop from the pesticide.
Scientists found their resistant gene in an unusual source that was actually natural. Monsanto, the company that developed Roundup resistance went looking for Roundup resistance in nature. And guess where they found it? They went to bacteria that were in the “residue of a waste water treatment facility” from one of their Roundup manufacturing plants!
In the early 80s, workers at a Roundup manufacturing plant in Louisiana noticed that bacteria were breaking down the chemical residue left over. Scientists took 20 different bacteria from the waste facility and found one was totally immune to the effect of Roundup or other glyphosate pesticides.
The next task was to put the gene from the bacteria into crop plants.
In 1987, Monsanto started field trials with GMO biotech plants. It took until 1996 to complete the tests, get the regulators to approve of the new hybrids and introduce to the world “Roundup Ready Soybeans.” Farmers could now plant the soybeans, wait for the weeds and the crop to come up and spray once with Roundup. The weeds would die and the crops would grow without the pressure from competing weeds.
In 1997, Monsanto introduced GMO varieties of canola and cotton.
For decades, agricultural scientists have known that a common bacteria found in the soil can produce toxins that are deadly to insects but seemingly harmless to humans. The bacteria are known as Bacillus thuringiensis and the toxins they produce are known as Bt toxins. There are thousands of different kinds of Bt bacteria and they produce different toxins that affect different insects.
In the early 90s, genetic engineers realized that the genes of Bacillus thuringiensis were what produced the Bt toxin, and they found a way to isolate those specific genes. They transferred those genes into a second bacteria – Agrobacterium – that has the ability to get into the nuclei of plants like corn and transfer genetic material to the corn. Then, they figured out how to find the specific plants that had been altered by including other genes that were resistant to chemicals like antibacterial drugs.
Agricultural scientists are now taking genetic modification further by “stacking” two or more genetic traits in a single plant. In one variety, there are eight different genetic modifications in a single hybrid of corn.
Many farmers have begun to use Roundup Ready crops. A recent news article in Scientific Daily suggests that farmers have becoming so reliant on Roundup as a herbicide that they may be weakening Roundup’s ability to control weeds. Monsanto, manufacturer of Roundup, funded the study. Few farmers consider resistance an issue until it affects them directly. Farmers are now being encouraged to use multiple herbicides. It is unclear how this will impact the use of Roundup Ready crops, as these crops are only resistant to Roundup.
Farmers have found themselves stuck between Monsanto and a hard place. It has become increasingly difficult for farmers to grow non-genetically engineered crops, as contamination has become a big issue. Additionally, it is very difficult for a farmer to advertise that their products are organic, and as such using home-grown seeds might not be able to be as profitable as using genetically engineered seeds. In one case, a farmer used to growing his own canola was sued by Monsanto when his canola seeds became contaminated by their Roundup Ready genes. More commentary on this issue can be found in the Greenpeace section
A good source for more information and studies on glyphosate, visit the GMO Awareness website
HYBRID SEEDS VS. GMOS
In short: Hybrid Seeds are nothing to fear, but you may not want to support them given that they fail to breed true and have caused so much global havoc. GMO seeds are far more unnatural and likely to cause harm — both to your environment and your health.
The non-GMO Hype
I just want to mention that when companies advertise non-GMO products, be aware of what they are claiming. One example of this is most companies advertise non-GMO peat to make it sound better than “GMO peat”. If you stop and think about it you’d realize there’s no such thing as GMO peat. Peat forms when plant material does not fully decay in acidic and anaerobic conditions. It is composed mainly of wetland vegetation: principally bog plants including mosses, sedges, and shrubs. As it accumulates, the peat holds water. This slowly creates wetter conditions that allow the area of wetland to expand. Peatland features can include ponds, ridges, and raised bogs.
Most modern peat bogs formed 12,000 years ago in high latitudes after the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age. Peat usually accumulates slowly at the rate of about a millimetre per year.
HOW TO AVOID GMOS
Unfortunately, because GMOs aren’t currently labeled in the U.S., you have no way of knowing whether or not you’re eating them. Roughly 85% of all grocery store foods contain GMOs, and there only a handful of sure-fire ways to avoid them:
1. Opt to buy single-ingredient certified organic food.
2. Choose Non-GMO Verfied labeled foods.
3. Grow your own open-pollinated, heirloom variety plants.
4. Know your farmer and ask pointed questions about his or her growing practices, then opt to support GMO-free growing.
A great company to purchase non-GMO seeds from is http://www.johnnyseeds.com
The Truth Will Set You Free
So, if anyone ever tries to convince you that hybrid seeds and GMOs are the same thing, or that genetic modification technology is “just another form of seed breeding”, you will know the truth: Most seeds are created through guided natural reproduction, while GMOs are the product of high-tech, species-crossing methods used to create untested organisms that would never occur in nature.
While it is possible to use genetic engineering technology in the public interest (with the precautionary principle applied), the majority of GMO crops available today were created by chemical and pharmaceutical companies to create profit and dependency at the expense of people and planet.
Dr. Michael Antoniou: Health risks from GMO foods
Monsanto and Glyphosate