By Jeremy Walther
Some might say that of all the colors, gray is the most befuddling. Gray can be gloomy, dull, sullen, boring. It’s the color of haze, noncommittal, inconclusive, wishy-washy; it’s the hue smack dab between ain’t no way black and hell yes white. Unfortunately, there just aren’t many examples of black and white, as gray rules much of the world—its murky shadow obscuring solutions to issues like the American economy, nuclear technology, Austin’s plan for growth and making cling wrap stick to anything but itself.
The proliferation and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a prime example of a gray issue. A GMO is any organism that has been genetically modified by intentionally altering its DNA at some point during development. Science uses GMOs to manufacture evolution—improving the traits of an organism so it might better perform in certain environments. Modern medicine genetically modifies bacteria to develop effective treatments for human diseases, researchers are using GMOs to create new energy sources on a global scale and agriculture has developed GMO plants with built-in resistance to pests.
We’ll start with the white paint, using an agricultural example.
A farmer uses a corn seed that has been genetically modified to be resistant to the common herbicide glyphosate. Like most GMO seeds, this type of seed is primarily produced by Monsanto, the behemoth American company that sells more glyphosate than anyone, under the trade name Roundup.
The farmer planting this type of corn, according to Monsanto, can save a lot of effort and money managing his crop because he can kill the inevitable weed that pops up in the cornfield by spraying a single chemical without causing harm to his corn plants. No more hand hoeing, no more repeat passes with the tractor, no more tedious and careful applications of half a dozen different herbicides that could blind you with just their vapors.
Theoretically, Monsanto’s GMO seed can make farming more profitable, save fossil fuels, prevent soil compaction and reduce the number of really bad chemicals needed to maintain conventional crops.
Now let’s add a little black to our canvas, and narrow the focus to just vegetable farmers and gardeners in Central Texas.
Johnson’s Backyard Garden is a 70-acre certified organic vegetable farm in East Austin. To maintain their certified status, they cannot use GMO seeds. This doesn’t matter to owner Brenton Johnson, who wouldn’t use them anyway. He paints GMO seeds with a very black brush:
“To avoid contamination problems, GMO seeds should be banned and not produced. There is unforeseen harm they may be causing to the environment, and we’re able to get adequate production using nonengineered varieties of vegetable seeds. There is no benefit to the risk of GMO crops cross-pollinating with pure crops, whose offspring would not produce viable seeds.”
This is where the GMO seed issue gets blacker. Consider an heirloom, or heritage, tomato seed. Before the development of agriculture, tomatoes were wild plants native to South America. The Spanish stormed in, found the sweet edible fruits on a mountain somewhere and spread them all over the world.
The Cherokee Indians got their hands on some of this seed and introduced tomato crops to the hot and dry North American plains. The viable seeds from that first batch of tomatoes produced plants, the healthiest plants produced fruit and the seeds from the best-producing plants were used to supply the tomato crops for the next season.
Eventually, the plants acclimated to the environment, produced a greater percentage of seeds that had certain characteristics best suited to the area and the Cherokee purple cultivar was born.
Cherokee Purple tomatoes are considered heirlooms, capable of producing plants that will in turn create viable seed genetically related to the parent seeds. You know exactly what to expect when you plant Cherokee Purples. Heirlooms are important for self-sufficiency and critical for sustainability, because each generation provides viable seed for the next generation.
Fast-forward to the modern day and, through colonization, the advancement of agriculture. By crossing one heirloom variety of tomato that, for example, grows well in hot climates but produces few fruits, with a second variety that grows in cold climates and produces many fruits, you could potentially create a tomato hybrid that grows well in hot climates and produces many fruits. But since the genes of the two different types are so different, their hybrid offspring don’t create viable seed.
Like mules. A horse and a donkey are two different species. They can mate to create a hybrid known as a mule, but mules are almost always sterile. This is generally a common law of genetics: first-generation hybrids can’t reproduce.
Nature produces hybrid plants and animals all the time; so do researchers. Hybrids are artificially developed to create plants with superior traits that can grow in conditions where no natural varieties or hybrids can. Farmers use hybrid seed, for example, to grow perfectly round, perfectly red, blemish-free tomatoes suitable for typical supermarket produce aisles.
GMO seeds, however, take the manipulation a step further. You can’t just cross one strain of corn with another to coincidentally create a hybrid strain that is resistant to glyphosate. Nature just moves too slowly to have yet developed any organism able to cope with certain miracles of chemistry. So companies like Monsanto hire genetic scientists to physically manipulate the DNA of a corn seed—to artificially force this chemical resistance into the plant that will grow from that seed. No pollinating required. It’s the agricultural equivalent to altering the stop-growth and fur-color genetic codes in a puppy to create a real-life Clifford the Big Red Dog.
That’s where it gets a little creepy. Hybrids generally can’t reproduce, but GMOs can. The technology is there to genetically modify a human baby to produce all kinds of mutant humans; I won’t even exemplify the possibilities. Monsanto and other interests are doing exactly that in plants and animals, including salmon that have been genetically modified to grow faster. What happens when this so-called “frankenfish” or similarly altered plant crop breeds with natural organisms that haven’t been genetically jacked up?
For example, a strain of soybean, genetically modified in highly controlled conditions to be resistant to three different kinds of herbicides and pesticides, can be planted in a field next to that of an organic-soybean farmer who seeded his fields with the same heirloom seed used by his family for generations.
The GMO soybean can cross-pollinate with the heirloom soybean (bees don’t know the difference and can’t see property lines), creating a generation of all-mutant seeds. If the organic-soybean farmer tries to use this generation of seed for the next season like he does every year, that seed will be sterile, or as a viable hybrid, posses a completely different set of traits than the parent heirloom.
No matter what, the organic farmer now has altered seeds, and the true-to-type, pure seeds are wiped out of existence.
Now black begins to overcome the white. The spread of GMO strains of food crops could potentially lead to increased contamination of pure, heirloom, genetically viable crops—wiping out certain foods altogether. The only seeds not created in a laboratory would be sterile, or contain mutated genetic code, which could potentially lead to the erasure of foods as we know them. And that’s just one of the dangers of GMOs.
Carol Ann Sayle says it’s not just fear of the unknown and contamination issues that led her to believe Monsanto should be dissolved and forced to pay restitutions, and that all GMO seed should be banned worldwide. She and her husband, Larry Butler, own Boggy Creek Farm in East Austin, and they recently attended a Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (farmandranchfreedom.org) conference held in Austin where photos were presented by Verity Farms’ Howard Vlieger, an all-natural meat producer in South Dakota who was curious to see the effects that different feeds had on his livestock.
“Just looking at photos of the stomachs of pigs fed three ways: natural-organic, chemical feed and GMO feed was very convincing,” says Sayle. “I’d never want to eat anything GMO. The photos clearly show ulcers and inflammation on the GMO stomach, while the natural-organic stomach was perfect.”
Because there has been no scientific research on the health effects of GMOs, the presentation was as close to concrete evidence as it gets. But Sayle doesn’t need any more proof on the health risks of using GMOs.
“There are no benefits to their products,” she says of Monsanto. “They kill the soil, waterways and oceans. And importantly, they will not feed the world. The world became populated under organic farming methods. There is plenty of food being produced in the world; politics, greed and corruption prevent food getting to the hungry. GMOs will not change that.”
If the disappearance of crop purity and potential dangers to human and animal health aren’t black enough, consider Monsanto’s and other GMO proponents’ claims that genetically modified crops reduce herbicide and pesticide use.
“Our biggest concern with GMOs as organic farmers is that it gives large-scale conventional farmers the means to slather Monsanto herbicides all over the crops, à la Roundup Ready soybeans,” explains Jo Dwyer who, along with her husband, John, owns Angel Valley Organic Farm, a certified organic farm just west of Cedar Park. “And of course, with Bt [the natural bug killer Bacillus thuringiensis] corn, it’ll eventually make Bt ineffectual as pests naturally develop resistance to it, and Bt is one of the only ‘pesticides’ organic growers can use.”
“And it’s what Monsanto is doing in third-world, poor countries that’s most alarming,” Jo continues. “They’re going into those countries under the guise of teaching the indigenous farmers how to grow more food, and they’re supplying them with their GMO seeds. This will, of course, ultimately destroy the soil, similar to what has happened to a great portion of farmland in this country. So in turn, more Monsanto products will be used to fertilize the crops chemically, and more chemical pesticides will be needed in response to that soil degradation.”
So much for gray. From the perspective of local farmers who promote agricultural sustainability, it’s purely a black-and-white issue. But branding GMOs as bad isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. We see the big icy lump approaching, and we’re convinced of its potential to shred this boat into pieces. Now we need all hands on deck because this battle will not be easy.
Cathy and Sam Slaughter buy a lot of seed. As owners of Gabriel Valley Farms, a certified organic vegetable starter plant nursery near Georgetown, it’s their business to stay updated on every new catalog produced by all the reputable seed suppliers across the country.
To keep their certification, they are only allowed to use nonorganic seeds of a particular vegetable variety if, and only if, they are unable to locate an organic version from at least three suppliers. Seeds that have been genetically modified are never allowed.
And that all has to be documented, which is no easy task.
"I can’t tell you how many spreadsheets we have,” says Cathy. “Every time I get a new catalog, I have to go through and update availability for all the varieties we grow, and it changes every season. I spend a lot of time at the computer.
“Because we want to maintain our organic certification,” she continues, “we only buy from suppliers we trust, and that are committed to avoiding GMO seeds.” She admits this strategy to avoid GMO seeds isn’t foolproof, because seed companies can’t really guarantee with 100 percent accuracy the genetic source of the seed they sell.
This is echoed by Jo Dwyer.
“Since GMOs are so prevalent,” Jo says, “no seed company is going to swear to you that no GMO seeds were accidentally included in their stock. They don’t test each batch of seeds for it. The best they can do is tell you which seed is certified organic, and that their policy is ‘no GMO seed.’”
And this brings us back to the fear of the unknown. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (attra.ncat.org) claims that 70 percent of products on U.S. grocery shelves contain GMOs. With that much saturation, and with no good way to measure GMO presence in seed, it’s no wonder a panic is brewing among many in the food community. Hysteria is not the answer, though, as more and more folks wearing white cowboy hats are beginning to push back against the GMO wave.
The Non-GMO Project (nongmoproject.org) is a nonprofit dedicated to offering consumers non-GMO alternatives. Created by producers and distributors of natural and organic consumer products, the Non-GMO Project established a third-party verification program to test whether products contain truly non-GMO ingredients. Demand from conscious consumers has led companies like Whole Foods Market to commit to identifying and labeling non-GMO offerings in stores as part of a collaboration with the Project. Whole Foods Market also intends to expand its offerings by seeking out non-GMO producers for a wide variety of foods.
Through national projects like this, and by promoting heirloom and organic seeds, saving as many seeds from crops as possible and supporting those who do so, communities can eliminate the fear of the unknown and help keep sustainable agriculture a shining white light in a dark, gray world.
Some of the following seed companies are completely organic; others have only a limited selection. Shop carefully.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds: johnnyseeds.com
High Mowing Organic Seeds: highmowingseeds.com
Seeds of Change: seedsofchange.com
Peaceful Valley: groworganic.com
Territorial Seed Company: territorialseed.com
Osborne Seed Company: osborneseed.com
Fedco Seeds: fedcoseeds.com
Snow Seed: snowseedco.com
Willhite Seed: willhiteseed.com
Grow Organic: groworganic.com
Park Seed: parkseed.com
Natural Gardener: naturalgardeneraustin.com
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: rareseeds.com
Seed list provided by:
Angel Valley Organic Farm: angelvalleyfarms.com
Boggy Creek Farm: boggycreekfarm.com
Gabriel Valley Farms: gabrielvalleyfarms.com
Johnson’s Backyard Garden: jbgorganic.com