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GENETICALLY MODIFIED GARDEN VEGETABLES?

written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
published 10/25/13

For the past month, we’ve been bombarded with a variety of messages in support or against labeling products that contain GM or genetically modified ingredients. That’s not a discussion I’m qualified to address, but I find it interesting that a number of seed catalogs, especially those specializing in heirloom veggies, note that they don’t offer seed of any genetically modified crops. I imagine that allays concerned gardeners’ fears, but the truth is that currently there is no GM home garden vegetable seed readily available to home gardeners. Most of the GM crops grown in this country are major agricultural crops that bring seed companies big money. These are marketed to commercial farmers and include wheat, soybeans, corn, and canola.

That doesn’t mean that scientists haven’t tinkered with the genes of some vegetables and fruits. Gardeners may remember the “Flavr Savr” tomato introduced in 1994. It was intended to be a grocery store tomato with a longer shelf life and better flavor. The FDA indicated that they didn’t pose a health risk and allowed the tomatoes to be sold without special labeling.

At the time it sounded like we would benefit from having better tasting grocery store tomatoes. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you stand on the GM food issue, the company marketing, growing, and shipping Flavr Savr failed to capitalize on this groundbreaking tomato. Their field production was much lower than that of other tomato growers and a large percentage of fruit were damaged during harvesting, making this new tomato less profitable than anticipated. Plus, there was strong competition from other new tomatoes, called long-shelf-life tomatoes, developed by conventional plant breeding methods.

However, scientists are still working towards bringing other GM tomatoes to commercial markets. Their efforts are aimed at making the fruit tastier, more nutritious, and easier to handle, as well making the plants more insect and disease resistant and more tolerant of stressful environmental conditions. Tomatoes and other crops are also being looked at as vehicles to deliver vaccines to protect humans against a variety of diseases such as cholera, rabies, hepatitis B, norovirus, Alzheimer’s, and HIV.

There are GM squash grown in some commercial fields in the US and Mexico. These squash have been modified to better resist virus diseases that attack squash. However, an unforseen problem has resulted from genetic modification. The plants are healthier, but this makes them more attractive to cucumber beetles. The cucumber beetles spread a bacterial wilt disease to the plants in their feces that they drop on the leaves while feeding. This sounds like both a GM success and failure.

As the Washington debate on GM labeling rages on until election day, scientists are in their labs working away. Keep in mind that a large number them are still developing new cultivars (varieties) with conventional plant breeding methods. These methods date back to the work of Gregor Mendel who experimented with pea breeding in the 1800s and provided the foundation for modern plant and animal breeding.

Monsanto, well known for its GM crops, owns Seminis Vegetable Seeds, Inc. Seminis is one of the largest developer, grower and marketer of vegetable seed in the world. They market seed to both commercial farmers and home gardeners. Monsanto indicates that none of the vegetable seed Seminis sells for home gardeners are GM vegetables.

For now it appears that gardeners do not need to worry that the vegetable seeds they are buying are GM, but who knows what the future will bring?

Published: 10/25/2013 2:35 PM

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