Vicky Boyd, Staff Writer
Vicky Boyd, Staff Writer

The acronym GMO — short for genetically modified organism — has become the whipping boy for environmentalists and food purists who don’t want DNA from one organism being transplanted into another.

In fact, several retailers, including Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods and Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, have joined the Non-GMO Project, a third-party tester and certifier.

When you come right down to it, nearly every plant on earth has been genetically modified over the eons.

If truth in advertising really prevailed, shouldn’t heirloom tomatoes and that Arkansas black apple also be labeled GMOs?

One definition from the online reference describes a GMO as an organism developed through genetic engineering.

That’s about as clear as mud. But it goes on to describe genetic engineering as the “direct manipulation of DNA by humans outside breeding and mutations.”

So where do you draw the line between manipulating DNA and breeding?

After all, isn’t breeding just humans manipulating traits with a hoped-for beneficial outcome?

And doesn’t genetic manipulation occur in nature even without plant breeders?

Bees carry pollen from one plant to another to fertilize the seed. Because DNA is variable, the resulting plant from the seed isn’t a clone of either parent and therefore has been genetically modified.

As one grower-shipper pointed out to me recently, it’s kind of like if one of these large retailers banned mutts because of their crossbreeding and only wanted people to have purebred dogs.

I’ve also heard food purists say they want only heirloom varieties because plant breeders haven’t monkeyed with them.

Over the decades, even heirloom varieties have been bred for certain traits, such as flavor or texture.

In more recent years, desirable attributes have shifted more toward the production arena, and in many causes a heavier emphasis has been placed on agronomic traits, such as yields, store-ability and shelf life.

I’ve even received comments from website readers blasting hybrid tomatoes for being GMOs.

Hybridizing a crop doesn’t inherently make it a GMO.

Heirloom varieties are open pollinated. Essentially, seeds from open-pollinated varieties will produce offspring similar to the parents.

But if you save seeds produced by a hybrid variety, chances are the resulting progeny will look nothing like either parent.

Nevertheless, the parents of hybrids tomatoes are still tomatoes, just remote relatives. But breed them together, and you get hybrid vigor.

It’s kind of like mutts tend to be healthy because the parents — maybe a beagle and a Labrador retriever — were only remotely related as dogs.

Compare that to a purebred German shephard, for example, where the offspring have been bred back to the parents or close relatives repeatedly.

The breed has been inbred so much that genetic defects — in this case, hip problems — have been enhanced.

Here’s where it becomes more complicated and sometimes more difficult for consumers to swallow.

Plums and apricots, for example, are members of the same botanical family and can be hybridized, resulting in pluots, plumcots or apriums.

In the dog world, it would be similar to the labradoodle, a cross between a Labrador retriever and a poodle.

Labradors and poodles are still dogs, just not close relatives.

Which brings up the question: Is plant breeding going to the dogs?

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