Zucchini season is here!
By August, many home gardens overflow with delicate summer squash. The annual surplus of zucchini and yellow summer squash can be shared, grilled, kabob-ed, sauteed or shredded by friends and neighbors alike.
Part of the beauty of home-grown squash is you don't have to worry about whether the fruits of your labor are GMOs. The two varieties of GMO summer squash currently on the market are only accessible by commercial growers in the United States. (GMO squash is approved for import and consumption in Canada, but not for cultivation).
Genetically modified zucchini and yellow summer squash have been on the market since the 1990s. GMO squash is grown on roughly 2,500 acres in the U.S. — that's about ten small family farms worth. While it may not seem like much, that acreage and market availability is sufficient to place summer squash on the Non-GMO Project's High-Risk List. That means products containing zucchini or yellow summer squash are subject to extra scrutiny during the verification process to ensure they come from non-GMO sources. You can find out more about risk status here.
Some resistance to some disease
Most GMOs are engineered to tolerate an herbicide or produce an insecticide, but not squash. GMO zucchini and yellow summer squash are engineered for resistance to certain plant diseases including zucchini yellow mosaic virus and watermelon mosaic virus which cause infected plants to grow small, unhealthy fruit.
However, modification mitigates the impact of the diseases, but it does not provide immunity. Plants may still become infected and show symptoms, and summer squash remains vulnerable to several other types of viruses. The limited efficacy could explain why GMO squash aren't more widely adopted.
While GMO summer squash's impact on farmland is modest, its impact in the regulatory space is anything but.
Risky business (as usual)
Genetically modified summer squash was one of the earliest GMO crops to be deregulated, and, according to the New York Times, "the first to raise the possibility of significant ecological threats."
GMO squash entered the market early in the GMO experiment. It was 1995 — just three years after the Flavr Savr tomato. During the 90s, the emerging agricultural biotech industry essentially designed their own regulations. "U.S. government agencies [did] exactly what big agribusiness asked them to do and told them to do," explained one FDA official at the time.
Why are we worried? The timing made GMO squash a regulatory test case. Squash is a promiscuous crop with wild, weedy relatives. Genetically modified disease resistance could turn those weedy relatives into unstoppable superweeds if they were contaminated with engineered DNA. Ecologists at the time voiced concerns that a lack of scientific and regulatory rigor could eventually lead to environmental disaster — if not because of GMO squash crops, then because of the pathway created for their speedy deregulation.
The legacy of GMO squash allows the biotech industry to design its own regulatory safeguards while it undervalues the expertise of ecologists and environmental experts. Meanwhile, biotechnology continues to evolve, incorporating new and experimental techniques that give rise to DNA sequences that have never before existed on this planet, and government agencies continue to remove regulatory safeguards for GMOs.
So plant on, friends! May your home garden abound with non-GMO zucchini and summer squash. It might just be a different kind of green revolution.