This past Sunday as I made my way through the crowded aisle of my favorite Farmer’s market, my eyes landed on a sign. It said: Mango flavored nectarines $3.00/ lb. Underneath the sign were about 30 or 40 ball-shaped yellowish-brown fruit with a pinkish tinge. The fruit looked like it had been badly sunburned. It was spotted with dark brown spots, which made the skin look tough and leathery, sort of like the skin on a mango. Definitely not the most beautiful nectarines that I’ve ever seen. However, the fruit was at one of my favorite organic fruit stands. It’s often the last stand that I visit, so by the time that I get there, my canvas farmers market bags are full and my $40 produce budget is a few dollars shy of being depleted. Just above the 30 or 40 nectarines was a clear plastic container that housed samples of what looked like short mango wedges–coral-orange, and brightly beautiful. I took one and tasted it. As the sweetness and acid from the mango flavored nectarine hit my taste buds, I moaned, a Mmm…escaping my lips. It was sweet like a mango, but crisp, with the slight bitterness of a nectarine–in short–AMAZING! I guess my moan must have been louder than I thought, because a woman standing next to me, who had been eyeing a bin of seedless watermelons, turned around to ask me what it was that had elicited that response from me. I told her, as I stuffed another sample into my mouth, all while simultaneously loading a brown bag with as many of the nectarines as the $3.75 I had left from my $40 farmers market budget could afford me. The lady leaned in and asked me in a low whisper–“are those GMO?”
It is a question that I have heard more than once. It usually comes in the form of “how do they get the seeds out of watermelon without genetically modifying them?” If you’re reading this, then you’re probably wondering also. It’s also an argument that I’ve heard used as proof that GMO’s are safe–I’m eyeing you, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye–I’m giving you both the side eye actually #unamused. So I want to answer it here. But in order to answer it, I must first pose the underlying question of what that lady was asking me, and what proponents of GMO foods imply when using it as an argument in favor of GMO foods. The question being: Is there a difference between the centuries-long use of hybridizing by farmers and the modern use of biotechnology to create GMO produce and animals, and is it the same thing? The short answer is NO it’s not the same! Now let me explain why.
Genetically modified foods cross the species barrier. They are for lack of a better analogy, a frankenfood–which is actually a spot on analogy if you ask me! They are conceived in a lab and can be the amalgamation of DNA from the same species, or they can be an amalgamation of DNA from a completely different species–something that is totally not possible in nature. One such example of such an amalgamation is that of the “fishy tomato.” This was a case in which, the genes of an arctic flounder fish were combined with those of a tomato. The hope was that it would prevent the tomato from freezing–thus allowing tomatoes to grow in even the coldest weather. Fortunately for us, these two species were not a love match, and the company that created it dropped it, and never sent it to be sold on the market. Some people say the reason they did not put it on the open market was because, people found out and protested. Either way, I, for one, am glad that it never made it to the market. Beyond linking the DNA of animals and plants, genetically engineered foods have also been created to withstand specific pesticides like Roundup, and to produce pesticides within their own tissues, to ward off pests. The latter of the two has resulted in insects that are even more resistant, superbugs if you will, and instead of farmers needing to spray less because the pesticides were added to the DNA of the plant, farmers are spraying more than they ever have. So those who consume these plants are effectively risking a–in my best Robert De Niro voice– double dose– of pesticides–not good for us or our pollinators! See this article on the plight of bees.
Hybrid fruits and vegetables
Tyson and Nye are right about one point, farmers and breeders have been using artificial selection to manipulate our food supply for some time. But the process by which they do that, and the food that they produce, is far from the foods produced through biotechnology. Unlike with GMO’s, farmer’s and breeders can only create within the confines of what is naturally possible. They can only match species to species, in order to create a different variety of that species. As in the case of my mango nectarine. Mango’s and nectarines are both stone fruits. As are pluots–which is a plum and apricot mix. The process is simple, farmers cross-pollinate two different plants/trees within the same species, and that creates a hybrid with the desired characteristics of the parent trees/plant. Other examples of hybrid produce include, different varieties and kale, broccoli, carrots, seedless watermelons and grapes, citrus like tangelo’s, and grapefruit–the list could go on and on, however, unlike with GMO’s hybridization is not man-made–it is nature made, and as such it occurs in nature without the help of man. So all of the aforementioned produce could be made in nature over time. Through hybridization, man has sought only to guide the natural process that is cross-pollination.
GMO foods have ventured completely outside of the box of guiding, by splicing the DNA of animals with insects, or animals with plants, or plants with bacteria–we are no longer guiding, we are playing GOD. These GMO crops have had a disastrous effect on our environment and our ecosystem. For the first time in human history, we are faced with the possibility of living in a world without bees. Considering the fact that bees pollinate a large portion of our food supply, pause and consider, what living in a world without them could mean! The worst part of all of this–as if that weren’t bad enough–is that we have no idea where any of this will lead us, or if it’s safe. We need long term, third party testing to know for sure. Maybe, just maybe we are at a tipping point? One thing that we can always be sure of is that natural selection always wins out–hopefully it will continue to be on our side.