What is GM?
Genetic modification (GM) is a process in which a gene from one species (plant, animal, insect, mold, etc.) is inserted into the genetic code of another species (I’ll focus on plants for our purposes). The resulting product is a unique product, for example, GM corn. Since GM products are unique, they can then be patented by their developers.
Is this the same as plant breeding?
No, traditional plant breeding techniques used by agronomists and farmers are the more traditional and slower method. Plant breeding produces a plant with a certain trait but does so by cross-pollinating different varieties of the same plant. Charlie Johnston, an Amaryllis farmer will show you how this is done. Watch his YouTube video here.
Purple, orange and green cauliflowers are good examples of traditional plant breeding.
Why breed plants?
Some, like Charlie Johnston, breed plants to experiment and see what new plants can be created. Others are more strategic and want to develop a new plant with certain traits. For example, you could take 2 plants with favorable traits, one that is drought resistance and other disease resistant, and cross-pollinate them with the hope that the offspring has both drought and disease resistance.
Why use Genetic Modification (GM) then, if plant breeding is available?
Genetic modification is faster and can produce new offspring that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Genetic modification doesn’t just cross two varieties of the same plant; it instead introduces genetic material from a completely unrelated organism.
What crops are approved for GM in Canada?
Some varieties of:
- Sugar beet
What’s GM-approved in the U.S.?
In addition to the above list, the U.S. has also approved:
Which crops are actually grown commercially and on store shelves?
Despite the fact that there are over 50 crops approved for GM, only a few are actually grown commercially. These are:
- Field corn (used as animal feed and to make corn products such as corn starch, corn syrup, corn oil and corn flour)
- Soy beans
- White sugar beet (used to make sugar)
- One variety of sweet corn (called Attribute, newly available as of 2012)
In the U.S., in addition to the above the following GM crops are commercially available:
Why are crops genetically modified?
Foods are genetically modified to produce a crop with a certain characteristic. These are the characteristics sought after to date:
- Crops that continue to grow even when sprayed with pesticide or herbicide
- Crops that are resistant to certain insects
- Crops that are resistant to drought or cold
- Crops that ripen more slowly and are more stable during shipping
- Crops that bruise less easily
- Crops that are higher in certain nutrients, such as vitamin A rice
Are GM products safe?
As you can image, GM has its proponents and its opponents.
GM proponents say:
- There is a reduced pesticide use in Bt cotton
- Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
- Protection from pests and disease in our crops
GM opponents say:
- Lack of evidence that GM food is unsafe is not the same as proof that it is safe
- One altered gene could have unintended effects
- We need more study on the impact of GM crops on our environment and our health
- Some animal studies have shown negative results on health
- Herbicide resistant GM crops have higher levels of chemical residue
What do you say?
At this point I’m on the side of the opponents. I will avoid GM products for my family and myself and recommend this for members of my community.
How do I avoid GMO?
- You can buy organic corn, sugar, canola, soy and foods containing these products. Make sure to read the labels!
- Buy organic squash and papaya, if the product is from the U.S.
- You can choose sugar that is made from sources other than sugar beet (e.g. cane sugar, agave, coconut palm).
- Grow your own sweet corn.
- Purchase from a grower that you know that isn’t using GM seeds (e.g. farmer’s markets or farms that retail their crops direct to consumers).
- Choose products that display the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal.
The Non-GMO Project is the only organization offering independent verification of testing and GMO controls for products in the U.S. and Canada. You may see this label on products sold in Canada and the U.S.
This bottle of canola oil, labeled “organic” does not contain GM canola. This is what I use in my home.