Are You Scared of GMO Garden Seeds?
Niki Jabbour, who lives in the frozen tundra of Halifax, Nova Scotia, recently shook a hornet's nest. The talented gardener, book author, and radio host said on Facebook that she'd been getting a lot of anxious emails from people concerned about whether their vegetable seeds contained GMOs and the possible health effects. Niki's answer – you have nothing to worry about, because GMO seeds aren't available to home gardeners.
Whoa, Niki! How dare you tell the truth! An avalanche of angry emails followed, implying she didn't know what she was talking about and that perhaps she was trying to throw consumers off the scent of what Big Ag is secretly doing. Well, I'm here to tell you today that Niki is correct.
What Exactly Is A GMO?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. In gardening, it refers to a plant that has acquired a desired trait (increased yield, disease resistance, nutritional content, storage length, etc.) not from another plant in nature, but from an unrelated organism within the confines of a laboratory. One of the best known GMOs, Bt cotton, incorporates genes from a soil-borne bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, to produce a toxin that kills only caterpillars, some of which bore into cotton bolls and ruin the crop. You can buy Bacillus thuringiensis at any home and garden center and apply it yourself to kill caterpillars. But you won't get it to donate any genes to plants unless you own some very sophisticated equipment.
Another well-known group of GMOs (and the most vilified) are Roundup Ready crops, such as Roundup Ready corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and canola. These plants contain genes supplied by another bacterium that make them tolerate the herbicide Roundup (aka glyphosate). This allows farmers to control weeds by spraying entire fields of crops with Roundup to kill weeds, but not the crops. Today, virtually all of the aforementioned crops grown on a large commercial scale in the U.S. are Roundup Ready. Like it or not, any corn or soy product you consume today is almost certainly GMO.
Are GMOs the Same As Hybrids?
No. Hybrids result from a genetic exchange between similar plants, usually the same species or genus, that occurs in the wild or at the hand of growers by cross-pollination. This is a natural process. Hybrids often demonstrate increased yields, disease resistance, and adaptability that allows them to grow well in different climate zones, a characteristic called "hybrid vigor." ‘Better Boy' tomato is a good example.
One disadvantage of hybrids is you can't save the seeds from a crop to plant the next year, because the seedlings will be different, so you have to buy new seeds. To get seedlings to come true, you must plant "Open Pollinated" (OP) seeds, in which the variety has been isolated from others and pollinated only by wind or insects. Many heirloom veggies, such as ‘Cherokee Purple' tomato, are open-pollinated.
WATCH: Planting Seeds with the Grumpy Gardener
Can Home Gardeners Buy GMO Veggie Seeds?
No – for two good reasons. First, they're much more expensive than regular seed and can't be saved from year to year. Thus, they make economic sense only for large-scale agriculture. Second, Roundup Ready crops are designed for famers who spray acres and acres of plants with Roundup. You planning on doing that?
Why then, you might ask, do seed packets at garden centers often state "Non-GMO" on them? Because unless they do, you might think they are GMO, and many consumers are scared of GMOs. Seed packets might as well say "Plutonium Free" on them as well. Otherwise, you might suspect they're highly radioactive.
Relax. Have a cocktail. Put on John Denver. GMO seed is not available to home vegetable gardeners. And no evil multi-national corporation is going to buy up all the heirlooms and force you to grow GMOs. Besides, you're already willingly using them. Remember what I said about corn and soy?
A Grumpy Endorsement
I would be remiss if I ended this without saying a few more words about Niki Jabbour, a fabulous vegetable gardener who grows fresh produce 12 months a year, even in the snow. I consider her book, The Year Round Vegetable Gardener, one of the best ever written on the subject. So if the idea of harvesting tasty, non-GMO produce from your own garden in the depths of January (and every other month) appeals to you, check it out.