What about the genetically modified or GMO seed that I hear so much about in the headlines?
I am no scientist, but here goes: GM (genetically modified) seeds have been genetically engineered. Using biotechnology, in a laboratory, the genes of another less-closely-related organism than is possible with mere hybridizing are inserted into the plant in question.
GM seeds are different from hybrids. Hybrids can even occur in nature from cross-pollination. Manmade hybrids are deliberate crosses of two genetically distinct but pretty closely related parents (to breed in vigor or disease resistance or height/compact size or later harvest or whatever trait you’re seeking). Typically the two plants are from the same species…which is why they can hybridize, or “mate” so to speak. Not so with GMOs.
The technology to insert genes and create what are often referred to by critics as “Frankenplants” was developed in 1982, when scientists working for Monsanto were able to genetically modify a plant cell for the first time. It has since been applied to agricultural seed crops including canola, corn, soy, sugar beets and alfalfa (have I missed one?).
What results is often referred to as GMO (a genetically modified organism), but I think that in the science community they prefer to call the offspring “transgenic,” an even clearer term than GM/GMO.
Again: transgenic crops are the result of biotechnology — I guess we laypersons think of that as “gene splicing” — the insertion in the lab of genes from a more distantly related organism than nature would allow. So while hybrids have been made for a long time (think Gregor Mendel’s pea experiments in the 1860s onward) and can even be done in the garden by hand, genetic engineering is a different process. Individual genes are removed from the cell nucleus of one organism and spliced into the chromosomes of another…manipulating genes. We do not know the longterm effect of any of this experimentation: on us, on the food supply, on the botanical genepool, on the environment.
- Why I am one of millions of people who is concerned about GMOs.
- Why I only buy from vendors who deal in organic or biodynamic or otherwise sustainably produced seed.