Musings about GMO crops, open-pollinated seeds, and heirlooms

I've been spending a lot of time doing programs about vegetable gardening lately, as well as thinking about vegetables and selecting seeds both to plant and grow as transplants. I grow and select open-pollinated seed, organic seed, and hybrid seed from a variety of companies and have been comfortable doing that.

But, a couple of programs this weekend, a volunteer workshop last week, and a new seed catalog had me thinking more closely about GMO seed, big ag, and the 'seed business' -- which is a varied group of enterprises, to be sure  -- and how we, as home gardeners, first, and as consumers, second, are affected by this.  (And how we think about it, too, and sometimes how poorly informed we are.)

Since my academic background has been science (plant ecology and botany, with a focus on plant population biology, reproductive ecology and germination success), I've not really been prone to undue concern about genetically-modified organisms, particularly plants, although I'm worried about the potential for gene escape to wild populations (quite a real possibility), both in plants and animals.

I'm also aware that humans have been genetically modifying crop plants for millenia, through traditional plant breeding, including hybridization. So I'm not willing to think "genetic modification" is necessarily bad.

The current reality is that there are few, if any, GMO seeds available to home gardeners in the U.S.  

In the US, if you're eating any sort of processed food that includes corn, soy, or beet sugar, you're probably eating food made from plants grown from GMO seed, unless you're eating all organic food.

No, I'm not happy about genetically-engineering plants to be herbicide-resistant or include Bt, both which seem to have become quite popular among industrial-scale farmers (presumably for production and yield reasons, not just because they're available, as they're certainly not cheaper than alternative seeds). I'm a life-long environmentalist and grew up concerned about the impacts of industrial chemicals, not to mention pesticides and herbicides.

These (big-ag) farmers, growing commodity crops like corn, sugar beet, and soybeans, are producing crops with plenty of inputs, and I'm willing to entertain the suggestion that they're reducing herbicide use and minimizing tilling and its related energy costs (and saving money) by using GMO seeds.

Yes, I wish those farms were more like the diversified family farms that my friends grew up on, than the ones that they describe today.

And yes, I'm all in favor of encouraging small farmers to re-energize our local food networks, and for home gardeners (and small-scale urban and suburban farmers) to incorporate more vegetables and livestock into their gardens and farms.

But what's surprising me as I look at seed catalog copy is how saying you're not selling GMO seeds has popped up as a marketing line, and how 'GMO', 'transgenic', and 'hybrid' are terms that are used without much precision.  And folks in programs are suspicious of GMO and hybrid seeds without really knowing much about them, and what we're actually eating, from a home garden or in a more processed-diet world.

This weekend, I received a new catalog (courtesy of my membership in Garden Writers Association, apparently) that included a Seed Watch card, a riff based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch card.

It was clever, but I'm thinking really?

Best choices were your own saved seeds, and locally grown open-pollinated, non-hybrid and heirloom seeds.  Good alternatives included regionally-grown open-pollinated, non-hybrid seeds.  Finally, they say, "avoid" F1 hybrids, treated seeds (I agree with that), GMO seeds, 'Big Box' seed rack seeds, and industrially-produced "One Size-Fits-All" seed from large corporate seed companies.  Hmmm.

This seems to be a bit overwritten.

None of the seed companies that are represented in my catalog selections or on the seed racks of the big box stores that I visit can really be described as "large corporate seed companies" in any sort of pergorative sense.  Burpee?  They've been around a long time as a reputable seed company and their president, George Ball, seems like a reasonably devoted fellow to what is essentially his family business, and I've had excellent success growing their seeds.  Ferry-Morse?  Their seeds seem fine, too.  OK, I don't really know where the hybrid seeds (for many resistant varieties) are actually produced (I hope most are in the US, but undoubtedly, some are elsewhere in the world).

I'm aware of the consolidation of the agricultural seed market into fewer large companies that would seem comfortable (wholesale seed producer Seminis, which was acquired by Monsanto a couple of years ago, has (as a source of seeds) been controversial among home gardeners because of that.  Johnny's, for example, has dropped Seminis seed as a source for their catalog.

Hmm, natural gardening is the focus of what I do in my garden, and I practice this every day.  Am I worried about using some hybrid seed in my vegetable garden?  No.  Do I like to grow open-pollinated varieties of seed?  Yes.

But I do like the viewpoint of Rob Johnston, founder of Johnny's seeds, in a recent piece in the NY Times.  He asked (more or less) whether you'd like to be driving a Studebaker today instead of a more modern car (that's safer, etc. etc.)  and think about the seed equivalents.


  1. Great read. Thank you. I do my best to grow OP, heirloom vegetables. Heirloom seeds are my first choice. I like having a variety of seeds and suppliers to chose from.

  2. Well said! We need more thoughtful, reasonable information about these issues. I'm very tired of companies using people's lack of understanding to convince them they have moral duty to buy their products rather than ones from a company like Burpee.

  3. This is the kind of thoughtful, balanced discussion of a very complex issue that we ought to see more of.
    As a scholar of religion, I have often mused that in the discussion of GMO, organic, etc, the words of science are used much like symbols in dualistic sacred stories. Things become "good" or "bad" in a cosmic scheme and we must take the side of right. But in science (as in religions, btw) things are much more complicated. Add business and politics into the mix, even moreso.
    I'm not saying people shouldn't have strong convictions and I am myself influenced by the rhetoric Lisa describes. But I think it is very important to hold what we attach to our strong convictions about eating, the environment, etc to scientific scrutiny (especially when convictions are paired w/purchase choices in marketing). This is difficult for many reasons, not the least being that science is not conducted or reported by neutral parties. Or ever done with its work!

    It's brave to write of you to write this Lisa. It isn't popular to question what people hold sacred.

  4. I think a lot of what you are discussing here stems from the lack of understanding of science--especially plant science--prevalent in our society. I'm glad I squeaked out of college just in time to get a very basic understanding of genetic modification. I have many concerns about industrial agriculture, but at least I know enough to not worry about my seed orders, or to worry over some hybrid tomatoes!

  5. This is such a convoluted tale, and the information on the web is so variable (folks just don't consider the reliability of the sources before repeating claims).


    I guess that's nothing new.

    I'm hardly a fan of GMO organisms (plants or animals), so CEN is totally on target when she comments on how the symbols become the message and become 'good' and 'bad' -- that's her field- and it makes sense to me, since 'reality' and 'truth' become obscured as passion overcomes science.

    And I also appreciate Valhalla's take on science literacy. Definitely if more of us understood basic science (about whatever), we'd be better off.

    And thanks Joseph and Janet for your comments.

    We've got a lot to help folks understand.




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