Understanding what they are and their purpose in production

Story and Photos by Bob Westerfield

We live in a world full of modern conveniences. It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t own at least one smart phone, computer, GPS, or a host of other electronic gadgets. But, in spite of all the technological advances, when it comes to growing vegetables the majority of folks seem to prefer to keep it simple and basic. 

Large-scale vegetable production has moved light years ahead of what could be produced as recently as 50 years ago. Improved varieties, more sophisticated equipment, and a greater knowledge of growing has allowed farmers to produce more to meet the demands of a hungry world. 

When discussing these modern advances, one topic that comes up quite frequently is genetically modified organisms, referred to as GMOs. For some consumers, just hearing the acronym GMO strikes fear about how these scientific breakthroughs affect our health. The intent of this article is not to defend or condemn GMOs, but to simply help folks understand the science behind it and some real facts. I will also share my own personal opinions and experience.

A corn earworm on non-GMO Bt corn.

Many people are gravely afraid of the term “GMO” when it comes to food they eat. The reality is that most of us have consumed GMO products and probably weren’t even aware of it. If you have ever worn a shirt or pair of pants made with cotton, you have undoubtedly had GMO products touching your skin. 

It’s probably best to begin by explaining what a GMO is and what it is not. When it comes to vegetables and products such as cotton, there are several ways to improve the yield to help farmers meet the demand. One way to increase the yield is through selective breeding, which is how we eventually get hybrid varieties. If you’ve ever grown or eaten a ‘Big Boy’ tomato, ‘Silver Queen’ corn, or other improved variety, you have been the beneficiary of selective breeding. Hybridization and selective breeding are not the same as GMO. In a very simple sense, selective breeding is the crossing of two pairs of vegetables in the same family and then monitoring the offspring and only selecting the best progeny. It is not as simple as doing it one time, but rather over hundreds and perhaps thousands of selective trials, improved versions of the mother and father plants emerge. Any genetic changes are naturally occurring through the crosses being made or by any mutations that naturally occur. This process alone has allowed us to breed for heavier yields and improved pest resistance. There are certainly no health concerns when growing hybrid vegetables, but as some people realize, the flavors can occasionally not be as good as the old-fashioned heirloom varieties.

Leaf-footed bugs on a tomato which can cause major damage. GMO tomatoes in the future may help with this.

Another way researchers have found to increase yield and improve resistance in agronomic crops is through genetic modification. A genetically modified organism (GMO) has its genetic structure altered by adding a gene that will express a desirable trait. The new trait might improve a crop’s resistance to certain herbicides or perhaps from insects and disease attacks. It may also boost an organism’s nutritional qualities. The overall goal of this “gene splicing” is to produce a crop that is more desirable for the producers, and then the consumers at the end of the line. The three most commonly engineered crops in the United States today are corn, cotton, and soybeans. The byproducts of these crops are often used in processed foods and materials such as products containing soybean oil, corn starch, and clothing. Specifically, GMO crops are produced by taking the gene from one species and implanting it into a specific location into the desirable crop’s genetic makeup. For instance, GMO corn is often referred to as Bt/Roundup-ready corn. The Bt gene comes from the naturally occurring bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which is harmless to humans but is deadly to caterpillar-type insects. For corn, this includes the corn earworm as well as other caterpillar pests. The Roundup-ready gene gives the corn a resistant barrier so that the chemical glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and similar products, will not harm the corn plant. This allows farmers an extremely effective way to use a non-selective herbicide, such as glyphosate, to control weeds in their corn. The advantage is that the chemical will kill most of the weeds without damaging the corn. On a commercial scale, it is a very effective and economical advantage for the grower. Until several years ago, this Bt/Roundup-ready corn was only available in field corn, used to feed livestock and other non-fresh eating applications. Several years ago, a sweet corn version of this GMO product was released. When you buy corn at the supermarket, it is possible you could be buying GMO sweet corn.

Leaf-footed bugs on a tomato which can cause major damage. GMO tomatoes in the future may help with this.

Before you decide to run out and buy a small packet of Roundup-ready sweet corn, there are a few things to consider. First of all, it is a very difficult seed to obtain and there are actually legal hoops you must go through to get it. Secondly, the seed runs about $600 or more for 8 pounds. In a small garden situation, that would be some mighty expensive sweet corn. Whether or not we will see this corn offered at a reasonable price to the consumer market is still up in the air. I don’t look for it to happen soon. On the positive side, these GMO vegetables have allowed our producers growing on a large scale to produce incredible yields. On the negative side, producers know that consumers are wary of anything new, particularly when it has the words genetic modification in it. Let’s try to address these concerns without getting too opinionated. 

As I mentioned earlier, if you have purchased food products at any chain supermarket, you have probably consumed some GMO products. Since this consumption has been happening for a few decades now, I have yet to find anyone who is glowing neon bright orange or suffering any confirmed ill effects in direct correlation to eating GMOs. Looking at the science, the Bt gene that is introduced in corn and other vegetables is naturally occurring and you can often buy it to spray as an organic insecticide for your vegetables. This goes to say that if you buy organic vegetables, you may indeed be consuming trace amounts of Bt anyway. The Roundup-resistant gene works by modifying the amino acid structure in the proteins of the plant. Roundup on its own is labeled for use in vegetable gardens, but obviously not to be directly sprayed on plants. If you search the internet you will find countless articles about the virtues of GMOs, as well as the dangers of consuming them. Like many things in life, there are undoubtedly some truths and inaccuracies in most of these articles. As a researcher myself, I think one of the greatest disadvantages of GMOs is it can allow resistance development in insects, weeds, and other pests since it uses a single primary residual control. We have already seen where the genetic alterations have to be modified to help break this resistance pattern. In a world that is full of dangers, I don’t personally feel GMOs are a huge threat to our safety. If you are inclined to resist GMO products at all costs, you need to purchase your vegetables from a local farmers’ market and from a grower that is certified organic or natural grown. You may also have to avoid processed foods that will undoubtedly contain GMO products. 

Ultimately the decision on GMOs is up to the individual consumer. Hopefully this article has provided a better understanding of what they are and what their purpose in production is. I’m sure I have personally consumed GMOs and I suppose I will continue to do so until perhaps I read some conclusive research that says they are dangerous.

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