Many people are concerned about how GMOs might impact them. The average consumer pays close attention and may choose products at the grocery store or garden center with a Butterfly label, indicating that the product is Non-GMO Project Verified.
However, with fast-moving technology and no shortage of opinions, even shoppers who try to avoid GMOs may be confused about them. We'll explain what makes a seed GMO and explore the difference between a GMO seed and a hybrid seed cultivar. Then we'll share the reasons you should choose non-GMO products and how this choice can benefit the earth on a mass scale.
What is a GMO?
GMO means "genetically modified organism." These are living organisms, including grains, vegetables and flowers, whose DNA is manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. Many GMOs are engineered to create a tolerance to herbicides, while others can produce their own bioinsecticides. Some GMO developers even claim their products increase climate resilience.
GMOs are created through biotechnology, which involves modifying an organism's DNA using in vitro nucleic acid techniques or forcing the combination of unrelated organisms with newer methods. Biotechnology differs from traditional crossbreeding, which takes what already happens in nature and replicates it in a more controlled environment.
The origins of GMOs
In the 1990s, scientists used biotechnology to develop a type of corn that could produce its own insecticide by inserting a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt) into the DNA of a corn plant. The crop became known as Bt corn. It was marketed and sold to corn farmers as a crop that could resist pests, and the use of GMOs in industrial agriculture began.
Throughout the 1990s, chemical companies produced a wave of crops through biotechnology – corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, tomatoes, summer squash and papaya. Many of these GMO crops are still available today and new GMO crops have been developed. In 2005, GMO alfalfa and sugar beets were made available; in 2017, GMO apples were introduced; and in 2020, the GMO pink pineapple first appeared for commercial sale.
Today, many commodity crops are genetically modified, primarily for herbicide tolerance or pest resistance. Some GMOs are marketed for improved resilience and higher yield, though these claims are contested. Herbicide-tolerant GMOs allow farmers to plant acres of GMO seeds and then use specific herbicides to kill off weeds without impacting their crops. Unfortunately, these herbicides can do a lot of damage to native species in the area.
What are hybrids?
A hybrid vegetable or flower comes from two parent plants of related species. Hybridization can occur in nature when two plants of related species cross-pollinate due to insects, animals or the wind. Alternatively, humans may choose two varieties for specific traits, such as appearance or disease resistance, and use paintbrushes or tweezers to transfer pollen physically, creating a hybrid. A fertilized flower produces seed that is a hybrid of the two parent cultivars. Growers choose seed from the offspring with the most desired traits and continue growing that hybrid plant. They continue to carefully select seed from the plants with the best traits over the next ten years or until they see consistency. Once an ideal hybrid is developed, the seeds of that cultivar are sold by various seed distributors. One example of traditional plant breeding is the 'Cherokee Carbon' Pole Tomato, created by crossing a 'Cherokee Purple' Tomato and a 'Carbon' Tomato.
Hybridization is how humans gradually developed an abundance of Brassica crops. Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, cabbage, bok choy and kohlrabi are all Brassica oleracea plants. They are the same species, but careful cross-pollination and time have enabled humans to gradually transform these into the variations we now recognize as a multitude of vegetables. These changes took place over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, resulting in the veggies available today.
Similarly, hybridization and careful cultivation by humans enabled us to take a wild grass known as teosinte and gradually train it to make larger and larger seed heads. Teosinte was developed over time and gradually transformed into the diversity of corn varieties we enjoy today.
How do GMOs differ from hybrid seeds?
The more similar two organisms are, the easier it is for scientists or skilled breeders to match their genetics and reproduce them through traditional cross-breeding techniques, resulting in a hybrid variety. In this case, people replicate what already happens in nature in a more controlled environment.
Developing GMOs requires the intervention of biotechnology, which allows scientists to overcome natural reproductive obstacles that prevent reproduction between different species. Via genetic manipulation in a laboratory, scientists can sidestep the slow, natural process of hybridization and can do things that hybridization would never be capable of.
Why choose non-GMO?
Herbicide tolerance has been built into over 80% of all GMOs grown worldwide, increasing the amount of toxic herbicides used to control unwanted vegetation. Increased herbicide use leads to a decline in native plants and has downstream effects on ecosystem biodiversity. Overusing toxic herbicides causes the emergence of pesticide and insecticide-resistant "superweeds" and "superbugs," and the only avenue for controlling these is even more toxic chemicals.
Non-GMO Project verification indicates a farm uses only practices and seeds that exclude GMO technology. These farms are part of the effort to reduce the toxic chemicals in industrial agriculture, reducing pollution and contamination of streams, major rivers and basins with poisonous waste. By shifting back to non-GMO and traditional farming or organic gardening techniques, we also restore rich soil, nourishing microorganisms and beneficial bacteria.
Buying from companies that sell Non-GMO Project Verified products supports farmers who preserve and protect the natural flora and microorganisms living in our soil. By choosing non-GMO products, you disrupt the support for industrial agriculture systems that are only focused on making money, regardless of their environmental impact.
The Non-GMO Project
The Non-GMO Project created a Butterfly label that symbolizes a commitment to transparency. This label appears on certified products that meet North America's most rigorous standard for GMO avoidance.
Botanical Interests supports the Non-GMO Project with every packet of seeds, promoting environmental sustainability and organic gardening while protecting native plants and pollinators.
Support the Non-GMO Project by growing your own food and flowers with Botanical Interests seeds, found at your local independent garden center or online.
This guest post is written by Botanical Interests.