Produce varieties going to the dogs?

04/12/2013 09:39:00 AM
Vicky Boyd

Vicky Boyd, Staff WriterVicky Boyd, Staff WriterThe 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 Wikipedia.org 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.


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Luis    
Arizona  |  April, 12, 2013 at 06:41 PM

Kudos to Vicky Boyd. Plant breeding is not going to the dogs but scientific literacy may be. To spice up the argument about the fungible lines drawn around the "natural and not", GMO whatever labels, one may also want to discuss plant breeder's widespread practice of radiating seeds to induce random mutation.

VB    
West Coast  |  April, 12, 2013 at 07:56 PM

Don't forget chemically induced mutagens, one of my faves.

John    
California  |  April, 15, 2013 at 05:41 PM

4/15 the Wall St Journal editorial page has an article on why we need GMOs. The WSJ is copying the thought leadership Vicky Boyd publishes in The Packer

Libba Letton    
April, 16, 2013 at 09:29 AM

Hi, Libba Letton from Whole Foods Market here. Regarding our initiative to label GMOs: to be clear, we will not be asking vendors to label products that have been crossbred through traditional plant breeding methods. Traditional plant breeding methods involve selecting desired traits followed by crossing these traits into existing varieties until the offspring exhibit the desired characteristics. GMOs, also known as genetically engineered or GE organisms, are organisms that have been modified to include the genetic material of another organism. Crossing genes from two different organisms does not happen in nature. In agriculture, GMO plants such as corn or soy are modified to include genes that allow them to survive the application of certain chemical herbicides, or cause the plants to produce pesticides.

Luis    
Arizona  |  April, 16, 2013 at 12:10 PM

Plants derived from deliberate exposure to gamma rays or chemical mutagens also rarely occur in nature yet, are not required to follow GMO legal protocol. A genetic engineer can use the tools of molecular biology to very arbitrary or precise cut and paste job using gene(s) WITHIN the same specie to create a new plant variety also not required to follow GMO legal protocol even though that level of genetic exchange precision also doesn't occur in nature. Given that at the molecular level the DNA of a grape, a whale and a human are the same and the tools so advanced Imho, focusing on the between species genetic exchange seems like false paradigm on which to base a risk assessment.

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