Probably all of us know about the GMO issues, pro and con. How should they influence our planting as home gardeners? Or should they influence us at all? Some foods regularly appear in the grocery store labeled as “non-GMO,” generally in large fonts. You may also notice the same thing regarding seeds for planting in your own garden. I think the name “genetically modified organism” turns people off – sort of like a Frankenstein food.

As a home vegetable grower, I subscribe to the precepts of gardening organically. I also agree that non-GMO foods should be labeled as such; consumers should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to favor such foods. But I wonder about the facts of the issue. I live in a semi-rural area (nearby farm shown above) where local farmers point out that several years ago, when there was a drought, had it not been for GMO corn that was bred to withstand dryness, there simply would have been very little corn produced. And with climate change likely causing more frequent spells of drought, wouldn’t these types of crops become more critical? As a side benefit, GMO crops require fewer chemicals to realize their higher yields. That’s something we can applaud.

So are GMOs bad news? There appears to be a great deal of fear mongering connected with this question. Having no skin in the game as a gardener, but as a food consumer, I decided to read articles both pro and con to learn more. Plant breeding as a science really began in the mid-19th century with Gregor Mendel’s experiments on peas. In predictably determining the traits of an organism he ascribed variations to the actions of invisible “factors” (now known as “genes”). So a type of genetic engineering is not totally new. 

Scientific American magazine points out that: “The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods. Compared with conventional breeding techniques – which swap giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another – genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result.

One of the more strident anti-GMO vibes comes from Organic Life magazine (which, I hasten to add, also publishes a horoscope in each issue). Greenpeace has been particularly vocal against GMOs, and was singled out in a June 2016 letter signed by 129 Nobel laureates urging the organization to re-examine and abandon their campaign against GMOs. The main anti-GMO argument seems to be that consumption of these genetically engineered foods could cause the development of diseases which are immune to antibiotics. However, no reliable proof of this is presented.

Antipathy toward GMO foods strengthens the stigma against a technology that has delivered enormous benefits, especially to people in developing countries. Here’s an example, again from Scientific American: “To curb vitamin A deficiency …. researchers have engineered Golden Rice, which produces beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Approximately three quarters of a cup of Golden Rice provides the recommended daily amount of vitamin A; several tests have concluded that the product is safe. Yet Greenpeace and other anti-GMO organizations have used misinformation and hysteria to delay the introduction of Golden Rice to the Philippines, India and China.

The drawback of GMO foods is that their saved seeds cannot be planted with the expectation that they will come true, or even reliably germinate. This becomes a problem in such areas as Africa and the Caribbean where subsistence level farmers habitually save some seeds from current produce for planting in the following year. For us home gardeners, that isn’t an issue. We generally purchase our seeds anew every year.

One of the highest priorities for why we grow our own foodstuffs is to avoid the chemicals applied before and after harvest. For example, the reason why you don’t find potatoes in the supermarket growing eyes is because they’re sprayed with a chemical to keep them from sprouting. I grow my own potatoes and have concluded that whether or not my spud varieties are GMO is immaterial. While foods sold as non-GMO are said to be generally free from applied chemicals that can potentially be life-threatening, this is irrelevant to the issue of how GMO crops themselves are created. Obviously, GMO foods can also be free of applied chemicals.

Admittedly, my perusal of the topic was far from exhaustive, but I tried to find reputable sources. A Midwestern bias may be showing. I can’t help but place considerable weight on the experience of those in the trenches: the farmers themselves. If you choose to steer clear of GMO foods, that should be your option, but it seems that the anti-GMO message is replete with so much speculation and pseudo-science that the general public is being ill-advised and needlessly biased.