A Discussion of GMOs Part 1: a Brief History of Seed

Last week, during Dr. Vandana Shiva’s talk I had the good fortune of being seated behind two young men who were clearly in passionate disagreement over Dr. Shiva’s claims on GMO toxicity. They were both wearing “I Love GMOs” T-shirts, while muttering rude remarks, surreptitiously recording video, posting it to Facebook, adding rude comments, etc., etc., blah blah blah…which was really unfortunate because it seems as though there should really be some healthy discussion over these topics rather than shady self-righteousness.

I was impressed after the talk by one of the young men walking straight up to Dr. Shiva and asking her point blank how she knew that GMOs were toxic. She simply answered, “They are.” Emphasize the period.

I entered the alternative food movement through my undergraduate introductory course in EcoGastronomy (ecological food culture studies), at the height of Food, Inc.‘s fame. I never once questioned that GMO’s were “bad.” In more recent years, however, I have found that it makes a heck of a lot more sense to have some data by one’s side when making an argument (thanks, AP Language for teaching me rhetoric), so today I think I’ll do a briefing on seeds, so that next week I can discuss the qualitative and quantitative reasons GMOs are so controversial.

Heirloom Seeds

Firstly, seeds. We humans began collecting seeds and planting them for our own use quite a while ago. All of the common fruits and veggies we eat today once came from a wild plant whose seeds we collected, selecting seeds only from the plants that had the most desirable traits. For instance, tomatoes originate from the Andes mountains, where people first began selecting different plants for different characteristics. That is why we have some tomatoes that are large and juicy for salsa and some that are drier for cooking pizza sauce. After the start of globalization (i.e. the discovery of the “New World” and colonialism) the seeds of the Andes were taken all over the world, where different varieties were selected over time in accordance with the plants adaptations to different environments; hence, Italian tomato sauce vs. Latin salsa. The term “heirloom” comes from the fact that these types of seeds have been inherited from the generations upon generations of people who selected seeds from plants according to their desired traits. They are at once a global and local human inheritance.

Hybrid Seeds

We also have hybrid seeds, which are seeds in which humans have selected two genetically compatible varieties of plants and purposefully cross pollinated them to produce offspring with the desired traits. This is another very common practice in the world of tomatoes, which are such a difficult little plant to grow. For instance, one variety of tomato might have incredible flavor and juiciness, but is very susceptible to bottom rot, while another tomato has mediocre flavor but high resistance to bottom rot. Bring the two together, and we hope to create a tomato that both has great flavor and resistance to bottom rot. Hybrids also offer more predictability of yield, which is highly favorable to gardeners who work their asses off every year to get that awesome July tomato.  The problem with hybrid seeds is that they produce a plant whose seeds, in turn, are sterile, just in the same way that the crossing of a horse and a donkey produce a mule that is a sterile; (*readers, please note correction in comments below*) its parents were too genetically similar to produce a stable set of genomes. So, hybrids produce a vigorous plant that’s seed cannot be collected for future use.

GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organism)

One of the most notable differences between our first two varieties of seeds and GMOs is that the first two can be done by just about anyone with two plants around, but GMOs are a much more involved kind of organism. The tomato (which coincidentally happens to be the first GMO fruit that was available for human consumption in the U.S. under the name “FlavrSavr”), is now in the global market and has to travel a far distance before reaching consumers. Most heirloom and hybrid varieties go soft and become damaged or rotted in the time it takes the tomatoes to travel from field to table. So, we’ll introduce an antisense gene (at which point I am a bit lost because I am not, unfortunately, a molecular biologist) that blocks the fruit’s production of polygalacturonase, the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of pectin in the fruit, otherwise defined as ripening. Thus, we have produced a tomato that can travel great distances and not ripen, preventing it from becoming damaged or unsellable prior to reaching stores. It’s a pretty cool scientific achievement, but one, as we will see that is not without problems.

Here are the macro differences in my head between heirlooms, hybrids, and GMOs: anthropology, agriculture, and molecular biology- and as we know, scientists never have disagreements. *Wink*

More on the history of GMOs, and unraveling the sticky controversies that surround them and their makers next week.

I hope this has been instructional!



5 thoughts on “A Discussion of GMOs Part 1: a Brief History of Seed

  1. TO: Molly McCahan
    FROM: Eric Koperek = erickoperek@gmail.com
    SUBJECT: Hybrid Plants
    DATE: PM 6:40 Thursday 30 March 2017

    (1) If you save seeds from a cross pollinated hybrid variety, the seeds are NOT “sterile”. The saved seeds will grow and produce edible peppers, tomatoes, et cetera. The genes will segregate, however, so you will not get plants with the same properties as the original hybrid.

    (2) You really ought to read a few plant breeding textbooks BEFORE you write about subjects that you know nothing about. Journalists have a responsibility to convey ACCURATE = FACTUAL information to the public.

    (3) I have been breeding plants since before you were born. Please write to me if you have any questions or require additional information.

    ERIC KOPEREK = erickoperek@gmail.com

    end comment.


    1. Hi Erik,

      I’m surprised and impressed that you have found my blog and taken an interest in what I have to say. Admittedly, I am a novice, and so I appreciate your expertise and input. Can you recommend any particular book on plant biology? I have been formally educated in sustainable food production and have been working on my design and gardening skills for about 10 years now, but I am not surprised to find some gaps in my knowledge. Thanks for the corrections, especially as they will benefit my readers. As my next post will be about the controversy around GMOs, can you tell me your thoughts and feelings on the subject?


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