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What Are GMO Seeds: Information About GMO Garden Seeds

When it comes to the topic of GMO garden seeds, there can be a lot of confusion. Many questions, such as “what are GMO seeds?” or “can I buy GMO seeds for my garden?” swirl around, leaving the inquirer wanting to learn more. So in an effort to help develop a better understanding of which seeds are GMO and what this means, continue reading to find out more GMO seed info.

GMO Seed Info

Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are organisms that have had their DNA altered through human intervention. There is no doubt that “improving” on nature can benefit the food supply in a number of ways in the short term, but there is much debate about the long-term effects of genetically altering seeds.

How will this impact the environment? Will super-bugs evolve to feed on genetically modified plants? What are the long-term effects on human health? The jury is still out on these questions, as well as the question of contamination of non-GMO crops. Wind, insects, plants that escape cultivation, and improper handling can lead to the contamination of non-GMO crops.

What are GMO Seeds?

GMO seeds have had their genetic makeup altered through human intervention. Genes from a different species are inserted into a plant in hopes that the offspring will have the desired characteristics. There are some questions about the ethics of altering plants in this way. We don’t know the future impact of altering our food supply and tampering with the environmental balance.

Don’t confuse genetically modified seeds with hybrids. Hybrids are plants that are a cross between two varieties. This type of modification is achieved by pollinating the flowers of one type with the pollen of another. It is only possible in very closely related species. The seeds collected from plants grown from hybrid seeds may have the characteristics of either of the hybrid’s parent plants, but don’t generally have the characteristics of the hybrid.

Which Seeds are GMO?

The GMO garden seeds that are available now are for agricultural crops such as alfalfa, sugar beets, field corn used for animal feed and processed foods, and soybeans. Home gardeners aren’t generally interested in these types of crops, and they are only available for sale to farmers.

Can I Buy GMO Seeds for My Garden?

The short answer is not yet. The GMO seeds that are available now are only available to farmers. The first GMO seeds to become available to home gardeners will probably be a grass seed that is genetically modified to make it easier to grow a weed-free lawn, but many experts question this approach.

Individuals can, however, buy the products of GMO seeds. Floriculturists use GMO seeds to grow flowers that you can buy from your florist. In addition, many of the processed foods that we eat contain GMO vegetable products. The meat and dairy products we consume may come from animals that were fed GMO grains.

Top Five Myths Of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted

Having just stepped into the shouting match over patents on genetically engineered crops, there are a few small things that I, too, would like to get off my chest.

I say small things. I’m not talking about today’s big hot issues: Whether genetically modified organisms — GMOs — should be labeled, or cause cancer in rats, or might improve the lives of poor farmers in Africa; none of that.

This is about something simple: Seeds of GMOs. Various myths have grown up around these seeds. Like most myths, they are inspired by reality. But they’ve wandered off into the world of fiction.

Central Illinois corn and soybean farmer Gary Niemeyer readies his genetically modified seed corn for spring planting at his farm near Auburn, Ill. Seth Perlman/AP hide caption

Central Illinois corn and soybean farmer Gary Niemeyer readies his genetically modified seed corn for spring planting at his farm near Auburn, Ill.

Myth 1: Seeds from GMOs are sterile.

No, they’ll germinate and grow just like any other plant. This idea presumably has its roots in a real genetic modification (dubbed the Terminator Gene by anti-biotech activists) that can make a plant produce sterile seeds. Monsanto owns the patent on this technique, but has promised not to use it.

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Now, biotech companies — and Monsanto in particular — do seem to wish that this idea were true. They do their best to keep farmers from replanting the offspring from GMOs. But they do this because, in fact, those seeds will multiply.

Myth 2: Monsanto will sue you for growing their patented GMOs if traces of those GMOs entered your fields through wind-blown pollen.

This is the idea that I see most often. A group of organic farmers, in fact, recently sued Monsanto, asserting that GMOs might contaminate their crops and then Monsanto might accuse them of patent infringement. The farmers couldn’t cite a single instance in which this had happened, though, and the judge dismissed the case.

The idea, however, is inspired by a real-world event. Back in 1999, Monsanto sued a Canadian canola farmer, Percy Schmeiser, for growing the company’s Roundup-tolerant canola without paying any royalty or “technology fee.” Schmeiser had never bought seeds from Monsanto, so those canola plants clearly came from somewhere else. But where?

Canola pollen can move for miles, carried by insects or the wind. Schmeiser testified that this must have been the cause, or GMO canola might have blown into his field from a passing truck. Monsanto said that this was implausible, because their tests showed that about 95 percent of Schmeiser’s canola contained Monsanto’s Roundup resistance gene, and it’s impossible to get such high levels through stray pollen or scattered seeds. However, there’s lots of confusion about these tests. Other samples, tested by other people, showed lower concentrations of Roundup resistance — but still over 50 percent of the crop.

Schmeiser had an explanation. As an experiment, he’d actually sprayed Roundup on about three acres of the field that was closest to a neighbor’s Roundup Ready canola. Many plants survived the spraying, showing that they contained Monsanto’s resistance gene — and when Schmeiser’s hired hand harvested the field, months later, he kept seed from that part of the field and used it for planting the next year.

This convinced the judge that Schmeiser intentionally planted Roundup Ready canola. Schmeiser appealed. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that Schmeiser had violated Monsanto’s patent, but had obtained no benefit by doing so, so he didn’t owe Monsanto any money. (For more details on all this, you can read the judge’s decision. Schmeiser’s site contains other documents.)

So why is this a myth? It’s certainly true that Monsanto has been going after farmers whom the company suspects of using GMO seeds without paying royalties. And there are plenty of cases — including Schmeiser’s — in which the company has overreached, engaged in raw intimidation, and made accusations that turned out not to be backed up by evidence.

But as far as I can tell, Monsanto has never sued anybody over trace amounts of GMOs that were introduced into fields simply through cross-pollination. (The company asserts, in fact, that it will pay to remove any of its GMOs from fields where they don’t belong.) If you know of any case where this actually happened, please let me know.

Myth 3: Any contamination with GMOs makes organic food non-organic.

The organic rules prohibit the “use” of genetic modification in organic agriculture. But if pollen blows from genetically modified corn into your organic cornfield and pollinates a few kernels, you aren’t “using” it — at least according to the USDA’s interpretation of those rules. In fact, a lot of the organic corn that’s fed to organically raised chickens or pigs, does contain some level of GMOs.

That said, organic producers typically do try to minimize the presence of GMOs, because their customers don’t want them. It’s usually not too hard to keep contamination to a very low level. But there are crops — specifically canola and corn — in which it’s extremely difficult to eliminate it entirely.

Myth 4: Before Monsanto got in the way, farmers typically saved their seeds and re-used them.

By the time Monsanto got into the seed business, most farmers in the U.S. and Europe were already relying on seed that they bought every year from older seed companies. This is especially true of corn farmers, who’ve been growing almost exclusively commercial hybrids for more than half a century. (If you re-plant seeds from hybrids, you get a mixture of inferior varieties.) But even soybean and cotton farmers who don’t grow hybrids were moving in that direction.

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This shift started with the rise of commercial seed companies, not the advent of genetic engineering. But Monsanto and GMOs certainly accelerated the trend drastically.

Myth 5: Most seeds these days are genetically modified.

Actually, surprisingly few are. Here’s the full list of food crops for which you can find GMO varieties: Corn, soybeans, cotton (for oil), canola (also a source of oil), squash, and papaya. You could also include sugar beets, which aren’t eaten directly, but refined into sugar. There’s also GMO alfalfa, but that goes to feed animals, not for sprouts that people eat. That leaves quite a lot of your garden untouched.

GMO versions of tomatoes, potatoes, and rice have been created and approved by government regulators, but they aren’t commercially available.

GMO Crops, Animal Food, and Beyond

It is very likely you are eating foods and food products that are made with ingredients that come from GMO crops. Many GMO crops are used to make ingredients that Americans eat such as cornstarch, corn syrup, corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil, or granulated sugar. A few fresh fruits and vegetables are available in GMO varieties, including potatoes, summer squash, apples, and papayas. Although GMOs are in a lot of the foods we eat, most of the GMO crops grown in the United States are used for animal food.

To make it easier for consumers to know if the foods they eat contain GMO ingredients, the U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a list of bioengineered foods available throughout the world. Additionally, you will start seeing the “bioengineered” label on some of the foods we eat because of the new National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard.

What GMO crops are grown and sold in the United States?

Only a few types of GMO crops are grown in the United States, but some of these GMOs make up a large percentage of the crop grown (e.g., soybeans, corn, sugar beets, canola, and cotton).

In 2018, GMO soybeans made up 94% of all soybeans planted, GMO cotton made up 94% of all cotton planted, and 92% of corn planted was GMO corn.

In 2013, GMO canola made up 95% of canola planted while GMO sugar beets made up 99.9% of all sugar beets harvested.

Most GMO plants are used to make ingredients that are then used in other food products, for example, cornstarch made from GMO corn or sugar made from GMO sugar beets.

Corn:

Corn is the most commonly grown crop in the United States, and most of it is GMO. Most GMO corn is created to resist insect pests or tolerate herbicides. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn is a GMO corn that produces proteins that are toxic to certain insect pests but not to humans, pets, livestock, or other animals. These are the same types of proteins that organic farmers use to control insect pests, and they do not harm other, beneficial insects such as ladybugs. GMO Bt corn reduces the need for spraying insecticides while still preventing insect damage. While a lot of GMO corn goes into processed foods and drinks, most of it is used to feed livestock, like cows, and poultry, like chickens.

Soybean:

Most soy grown in the United States is GMO soy. Most GMO soy is used for food for animals, predominantly poultry and livestock, and making soybean oil. It is also used as ingredients (lecithin, emulsifiers, and proteins) in processed foods.

Cotton:

GMO cotton was created to be resistant to bollworms and helped revive the Alabama cotton industry. GMO cotton not only provides a reliable source of cotton for the textile industry, it is also used to make cottonseed oil, which is used in packaged foods and in many restaurants for frying. GMO cottonseed meal and hulls are also used in food for animals.

Potato:

Some GMO potatoes were developed to resist insect pests and disease. In addition, some GMO potato varieties have been developed to resist bruising and browning that can occur when potatoes are packaged, stored, and transported, or even cut in your kitchen. While browning does not change the quality of the potato, it often leads to food being unnecessarily thrown away because people mistakenly believe browned food is spoiled.

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Papaya:

By the 1990s, ringspot virus disease had nearly wiped out Hawaii’s papaya crop, and in the process almost destroyed the papaya industry in Hawaii. A GMO papaya, named the Rainbow papaya, was created to resist ringspot virus. This GMO saved papaya farming on the Hawaiian Islands.

Summer Squash:

GMO summer squash is resistant to some plant viruses. Squash was one of the first GMOs on the market, but it is not widely grown.

Canola:

GMO canola is used mostly to make cooking oil and margarine. Canola seed meal can also be used in food for animals. Canola oil is used in many packaged foods to improve food consistency. Most GMO canola is resistant to herbicides and helps farmers to more easily control weeds in their fields.

Alfalfa:

GMO alfalfa is primarily used to feed cattle—mostly dairy cows. Most GMO alfalfa is resistant to herbicides, allowing farmers to spray the crops to protect them against destructive weeds that can reduce alfalfa production and lower the nutritional quality of the hay.

Apple:

A few varieties of GMO apples were developed to resist browning after being cut. This helps cut down on food waste, as many consumers think brown apples are spoiled.

Sugar Beet:

Sugar beets are used to make granulated sugar. More than half the granulated sugar packaged for grocery store shelves is made from GMO sugar beets. Because GMO sugar beets are resistant to herbicides, growing GMO sugar beets helps farmers control weeds in their fields.

What about animals that eat food made from GMO crops?

More than 95% of animals used for meat and dairy in the United States eat GMO crops. Independent studies show that there is no difference in how GMO and non-GMO foods affect the health and safety of animals. The DNA in the GMO food does not transfer to the animal that eats it. This means that animals that eat GMO food do not turn into GMOs. If it did, an animal would have the DNA of any food it ate, GMO or not. In other words, cows do not become the grass they eat and chickens don’t become the corn they eat.

Similarly, the DNA from GMO animal food does not make it into the meat, eggs, or milk from the animal. Research shows that foods like eggs, dairy products, and meat that come from animals that eat GMO food are equal in nutritional value, safety, and quality to foods made from animals that eat only non-GMO food.

Who makes sure animal food is safe?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the primary regulatory agency responsible for ensuring the safety of GMO and non-GMO food for animals. The FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine manages this responsibility. FDA requires that all food for animals, like food for human foods, be safe for animals to eat, be produced under clean conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be accurately labeled.

Are there GMO animals in the food supply?

There soon will be. FDA has approved an application that allows the marketing of the AquAdvantage Salmon, an Atlantic salmon that has been genetically modified to reach an important growth point faster. FDA determined that AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe to eat and as nutritious as non-GMO Atlantic salmon. FDA also found that its approval of the application for this salmon would not significantly impact the U.S. environment.

Are GMOs used to make anything besides food?

When you hear the term “GMO” you probably think of food. However, techniques used to create GMOs are important in creating some medicines as well. In fact, genetic engineering, which is the process used to create GMOs, was first used to make human insulin, a medicine used to treat diabetes. Medicines developed through genetic engineering go through an in-depth FDA approval process. All medicines must be proven to be safe and effective before they are approved for human use. GMOs are also used in the textile industry. Some GMO cotton plants are used to create cotton fiber that is then used to make fabric for clothing and other materials.