Spring seeds start in the lab

With each passing day, the garden centers are getting busier and busier.  Plants and seeds are readily available and in a multitude of kinds.  Which to choose and why?  As I was walking through a garden center, I noticed a display of onion sets and root starters for asparagus, rhubarb, garlic and horseradish.  I took a picture of it because each of the above were advertised as non-GMO.  I thought to myself: Are you kidding me?  Are these claims true?  Or are consumers being manipulated?  Depending on your definition of what a GMO is, you could make your case either way.

Genetically modified organisms or genetically engineered organisms are defined simply as an organism that has had its DNA changed.  But as you probably already know, there is nothing simple about this topic.  A more detailed definition has emerged as the debate continued – The result of taking the DNA from a non-plant organism and placed into the DNA of a plant in a laboratory setting.

To me, and many, the second definition just brings up a lot of questions. Why does the process have to have taken place in a lab? What if you put DNA from one plant into another plant, is it still a GMO? What if the DNA transfer occurred during natural or assisted pollination process? And why are scientists trying to alter the DNA of a plant in the first place?

Genetic manipulation of plants has been going on much longer than the GMO debate has been. We seldom eat native fruits and vegetables that have not been bred to make the food better and to add variety. The display I mentioned had four different kinds of onions – sweet, yellow, white and red – but there are a lot of different kinds available.

Potatoes, I found out have been modified or manipulated so that they bruise less.  Statistics in 2009 and 2012 showed 190-250 million preschoolers were vitamin A deficient, which is the leading cause of child-hood blindness and decreased ability of the immune system to combat disease. So, through genetic manipulation, Golden Rice was developed, which has vitamin A.

Where does the weed killer, glyphosate, fit into the picture?  A company did research and developed a seed that when grown, it would be resistant to non-selective herbicides. So, a farmer could plant these seeds (when he has signed a contract to do so) – say corn – and when the corn plants and weeds are about a foot tall, glyphosate can be sprayed on the field, killing only the weeds. Why do farmers want to do this? If you have ever planted anything, you know weeds are a big problem and can prevent your desired plants from growing. You pull weeds out repeatedly and they still come back. Before this technology, farmers would have to cultivate the corn several times before the plant got too big to drive through. It’s like attaching rototiller-like equipment to the tractor to root out the weeds in between the rows of corn.  Problem is that damage is also done to the roots of the corn, there is more soil compaction because you are driving over the field the extra times and the added diesel fuel cost.  Before cultivators, farmers and their families used a hoe.  Spray the herbicide once and the weeds and their roots are killed.  The corn flourishes and shades out any weeds that try to grow back.  It is technology that has helped farmers be more profitable.

Whether you want to buy non-GMO seeds or other products is up to you, but please keep some things in mind. Just because a plant is a GMO does not mean that it is a bad or inferior product. Not all GMOs are herbicide resistant.  And just as the number of farmers is decreasing and farm size is increasing, the same goes for agricultural businesses. There are decreasing numbers of agricultural businesses, but those that remain are getting bigger. Just because it is on the internet doesn’t make it true, make sure you look at multiple sources. There is a difference between perceived risk and actual risk. Grow what you want and eat what you want, because lucky for you, you live in the United States and can do so.

Written by Mary Smallsreed.  She is a member of the Trumbull County Farm Bureau and grew up on a family farm in northeast Ohio.