Are There GMOs in Your Backyard Garden?

6 years ago

As more families begin growing their own food, fears over genetically modified organisms making their way into backyard gardens mount. Some seed companies have based entire marketing campaigns on -- and even business structures around -- providing a GMO-free product while others have remained eerily silent. Meanwhile, consumers are paying premiums for reassurance on a topic they don't understand. But is it necessary?

What are Genetically Modified Organisms to begin with? Are they really a threat to the average American vegetable garden?

The answer -- which is no, genetically modified organisms are not a significant threat to American gardens -- may come as a surprise, but understanding what genetically modified organisms are and how they relate to the other types of seeds available can help in cutting through the confusion that surrounds them.

Genetically Modified Organisms - GMOs, as they're commonly known -- are organisms that have been genetically modified using genetic engineering technology in a laboratory. In genetic engineering specific genes are isolated from different sources, combined and inserted into the host organism. While some genetic engineering works within sexually compatible species -- that is, different types of plants that could cross naturally -- most of the technology currently in use focuses on inserting DNA from a completely different, sexually-incompatible species into the host organism; such as in the case of Bt-Corn where genetic material from a common bacterium found in soil was added to the DNA of corn to help control pests.

Not only are GMO seeds not available to backyard gardeners -- they're only sold in large quantities typically purchased by professional farmers who plant many, many acres of seed at a time -- most of the commonly grown vegetables in kitchen gardens don't even have a GMO variety on the market at all. GMO tomatoes are often a hot topic of conversation, for instance, but what many sources fail to mention is that the only GMO tomato that was ever released for production was also promptly pulled because it failed to meet expectations; it hasn't even been grown by commercial farmers in a decade.

Meanwhile, hybrid varieties of plants and seeds are often confused with GMOs, especially in the wake of Food, Inc. and other similar programs, but hybrid plants are in a category all their own and result from much older, much less human-intensive "technology". Hybrids are the result of crossing two types of the same kind of vegetable; usually with the intent to produce a progeny with a combination of the parents' traits. Hybrids can be created in any garden simply by cross-pollinating two similar and sexually-compatible plants; such as two types of tomatoes. And often they result by accident when a hobby gardener has a mix of varieties in close quarters. Hybrid plants do not breed true, which means that if you save their seeds you may not get the same kind of produce from them the next year -- instead it's common for the second or third generation of hybrid plants to revert to the characteristics of one of the original parent plants -- but they do not contain patented or "foreign" DNA. Gardeners and horticulturists have been using hybrid mating techniques to produce new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers for centuries. 

In fact, many of the open-pollinated varieties of plants -- those commonly called heirloom or heritage by marketers and the media -- originated from hybrid breeding programs that aimed to develop new, and interesting types of garden vegetables. They are, quite simply, standardized "breeds" of plants that have been developed over the years. When planted they will mature to produce a consistent type of fruit or vegetable, and when mated with the same variety, the resulting seeds will also produce the same type of plant and fruit. The term "heirloom" can be deceiving as new open-pollinated varieties are being developed all the time by breeding plants for specific traits. Much in the same way that new breeds of animals can be developed by breeding for specific traits.

In short, GMOs needn't be a concern for gardeners as they shop for seeds this year; regardless of how prominently the seed company's marketing department declares it.  Go forth and grow without fear!  

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Diana Prichard authors Cultivating the Art of Sustenance and is the owner of the small farm Olive Hill.

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