GMO Yes or No?

I have often been asked if our products contain genetically modified herbs. When I have a conversation with people about the issues surrounding genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), many are confused about them. So here is my attempt to make things clearer.

Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, or other natural mechanisms. Because there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between plants, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate over time. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seeds produced will remain true-to-type. In order to keep the integrity of the variety, seed companies will cover the plants with a mush net to prevent insects from pollinating with other varieties of the same species. Every fall we collect tulsi, calendula, ashwagandha and tomato seeds. Using our own seeds aligns with the ideals of biodynamic agriculture in which the farm is perceived to be a living organism that provides all of its own needs from within, without “importing”. As this is an ideal that we strive towards, we try to collect as many different varieties from the garden as possible, although we do also buy seeds.

“The seed carries the collective memory of the species that it represents, including the specifics of its mode of adaptation”

~Acharya David Frawley

An heirloom variety is a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the generational sharing of heirloom jewelry or furniture. An heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. While some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a variety that is more than 50 years old), Seed Savers Exchange identifies heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed. All the tomatoes that we grow on the farm are heirloom tomatoes. We grow Amish paste, Brandywine, and Moskvich. We find that heirloom tomatoes, although not always picture-perfect, taste heavenly.

Hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed by human intervention. Hybridization can occur naturally through random crosses, but commercially available hybridized seeds, often labeled as F1, are deliberately created to breed a specific desired trait. The first generation of a hybridized plant cross also tends to grow better and produce higher yields than the parent varieties due to a phenomenon called ‘hybrid vigor’. However, seeds produced by F1 plants are genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years. Not only will the plants not be true-to-type, but they will also be considerably less vigorous. Gardeners who use hybrid plant varieties must purchase new seeds every year. Hybrid seeds can be stabilized, becoming open-pollinated varieties, by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many years.  For example, you might pollinate one variety of tomato with another variety of tomato to create one that might look more beautiful, has a longer shelf life, or other traits such as taste and juiciness. Most commercial hybrid tomatoes are focused on marketability - productivity, longer shelf life, transportability and look. This is the reason why most supermarket tomatoes are tasteless. We use only a small number of hybrid seeds and only in varieties that do not have a good open-pollinated option.

People have been altering the genomes of plants and animals for many years using traditional breeding techniques. Artificial selection for specific, desired traits has resulted in a variety of different organisms, ranging from sweet corn to hairless cats. But this artificial selection, in which organisms that exhibit specific traits are chosen to breed subsequent generations, has been limited to naturally occurring variations. In recent decades, however, advances in the field of genetic engineering have allowed for precise control over the genetic changes introduced into an organism. Today, we can incorporate new genes from one species into a completely unrelated species through genetic engineering.  Crop plants, farm animals, and soil bacteria are some of the more prominent examples of organisms that have been genetically engineered.

Commercial sale of genetically modified foods began in 1994 when Calgene first marketed its unsuccessful Flavr Savr delayed-ripening tomato. Most food modifications have primarily focused on cash crops such as soybean, corn, canola, and cotton. Some genetically modified crops have been engineered for resistance to pathogens and herbicides and for better nutrient profiles.

Some large farms use GMO seeds that were designed to make their crops resilient to herbicides as a means to control weeds. In these farms, farmers can spray herbicide on their fields and kill the weeds without harming the plants. For this reason, corn, soybeans, sunflower and canola seeds that are grown in a huge agribusiness farm may be highly contaminated with chemicals. 

Please keep in mind that many of the crops that are grown using GMO seeds are used to feed animals. The only way to ensure that the meat that you are buying is not free of GMOs is to buy meat from animals that were fed with organic feed.

Since GMO food was available on the market only for the past twenty-three years, no long-term research was done on their impact on human health. Moreover, since we are dealing with the engineering of the genome of our food, the research needs to span across many generations and check if it influences the human genome.

While most of the arguments considering GMO is centered around its impact on human health, I would like to shed light on the problems of seed diversity and the freedom of the farmer.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives,

not the most intelligent that survives.

It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

~ Charles Darwin

The diversity of nature is one of its exquisite beauties, but also what makes it so strong. Every winter, when the seed catalogs arrive, we are amazed at the number of varieties of vegetables, herbs, flowers, and trees that were created over millions of years. Every area on the planet created seeds that adapted to the type of soil, the weather, or the angle of the sun at that area. Having a large variety of seeds ensures that in case of a catastrophe - be it man-made or natural - some seeds varieties will be able to survive and provide us with food. Some people, “seed savers” dedicated their lives to growing and collecting seeds and creating heirloom seeds “shelter” for future generations.

Both hybrid seeds and GMO seeds give the power over food to the seed companies. A farmer who uses either of these needs to buy new seeds every year. Hybrid seeds are easy to produce so many small companies produce hybrid seeds. Genetic engineering is highly advanced technology that costs a lot of money to develop. Almost 70% of the global seed market is held by 10 companies. Monsanto holds 23% of the market. If you look into these companies, you will find that many of them produce the herbicides that to which their seeds are resilient. Many of them own food companies. That gives these ten companies a lot of power over the food market in the world. Food, more than any other good, is something without which we can not live.

“Seed is the basis of agriculture; the means of production and the basis of farmers’ livelihoods. In less than two decades, cotton seeds have been snatched from the hands of Indian farmers by Monsanto, displacing local varieties, introducing GMO Bt cotton seeds and coercing extravagant royalties from farmers. Since Monsanto’s entry into India in 1998, the price of cotton seeds has increased by almost 80,000%. 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide, trapped in vicious cycles of debt and crop failures, 84% of these suicides are attributed directly to Monsanto’s Bt cotton.”

~Vandan Shiva

Nature belongs to all of us. We all have a right to food. Giving a small number of companies the ability to write a patent over seeds gives them power over food all over the world. 42% of the global seed market is held by American companies (Monsanto 23%, DuPont 15%, and Land O' Lakes 4%) Giving America a huge power over other countries, especially in Asia and Africa. That is one of the reasons that food technology in America is protected by the government. But at what cost?

“The fact that we have to fight for something so essential to life as the integrity of seeds, speaks to the real drama of this present time: that we have to fight to preserve what is most fundamental and sacred to life”

~Llewellyn Vaughan Lee

The cost is in the future health of our children and grandchildren. The cost is in the health of the soil all over the world. The cost is in the reduction in the multiple varieties of nature being which makes nature so beautiful and strong. And the cost is in our integrity as human beings. In our ability to embrace and support diversity within the human race. To be open-minded and allow people in far away countries with different cultures to have a dignified life.