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.
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?
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.
Some GMO crops are grown in the U.S., but these are production crops like field corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets. In fact, the actual number of different GMO plant species is much less than people think. There are fewer than 10 different genetically modified plant species currently available as fresh produce or part of a processed food product in our markets.
Lake Valley Seed, located in Boulder, Colo., is a major sponsor of Denver’s Plant a Row for the Hungry Program. Every season the company provides thousands of packets of fruit, vegetable and herb seeds for hundreds of home gardeners who promise to donate some of their harvest to neighbors in need.
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To set the record straight, there are currently no genetically modified garden seeds available for sale to the general public. Not from Lake Valley or other seed companies selling to home gardeners.
Here’s what vegetable gardeners need to know about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) before going seed shopping this season.
Hybrid cultivars are produced by cross-pollinating different varieties within the same species. Seeds labeled as hybrid or F1 occurred because breeders wanted plants with a desirable trait, like disease resistance. If seeds from hybrids are saved to grow again, the plants will revert back to one of the parent plants.
GMO seeds, like any others, can be saved and replanted. This misconception is a result of so-called ‘terminator genes’ that were researched in the 1900s to make seeds sterile, but they never made it into production. However, when farmers purchase GMO seed, they enter into contracts with seed companies and sign an agreement to purchase new seed each year and not save seed from their crops to plant the following year. This is a result of two factors, neither of which is related to the ability of the harvested GMO variety to sprout if planted. First, the contract’s provisions are binding and represent a business decision on the part of the farmer and the seed company’s desire to protect their variety and, certainly, to encourage future sales. Second, most commercial growers don’t save seed because the generation of harvested seeds will not uniformly contain all of the desired genetic traits of the original seed.
“Bringing Biotechnology to Life” is a resource for science educators and others interested in learning more about biotechnology and its role in food production