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As part of my focus on sustainability here on Jest Kept Secret, Organic 101 is a series of posts that dives into the mysterious and often misunderstood world of Organic regulations. I am a certified Organic inspector, but I do not represent the USDA or any Organic certifying body. Information in these posts is meant to be informative only and does not constitute legal advice. Furthermore, organic regulations do change. Please visit the National Organic Program website for the most current information. See more Organic 101 posts here.
I am a huge fan of this time of year. I love getting plants in the garden (or in our case, the container garden on our patio), and I love watching them grow and stretch toward the sun. I cheer every step of the way as I watch them bud, then blossom, then develop fruit. And there’s nothing more satisfying than harvesting fresh cucumbers and tomatoes off your own plants, or in leaving a bag of gigantic zucchini hanging on your neighbor’s doorknob because you’ve had about all the zucchini bread you can eat and besides, it’s the neighborly thing to do, right?
But *GASP!* What’s this? My favorite organic greenhouse is selling hybrid starts?! I didn’t think GMOs were allowed in organics!
You’re absolutely right. They’re not.
But hybrids are GMOs, right?
Nope, but it’s a common misconception. That’s why today on Organic 101, we’re going to talk about the difference between hybrids and GMOs, and why one is allowed in organic production and one isn’t.
What is a hybrid anyways?
A hybrid is a plant or an animal that results when two compatible species or varieties breed. Mules, for example, are hybrids created by crossing horses and donkeys. Napoleon Dynamite’s favorite animal, the liger, is a hybrid lion and tiger cross. And many, many edible plants are hybrids, including several varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, watermelons, pretty much anything else you can find in your garden, and even field crops like corn and wheat.
In short, hybridization is natural plant breeding, and it only works between certain members of the same genus. That’s why you won’t see a real-life Pegasus because birds and horses belong to different genera.
And What is a GMO?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism, a term specifically used to identify crops in which foreign/non-genus DNA has been inserted into the genetic structure of a crop using (usually) the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. This video from The Microbiology Society gives a simple and straightforward explanation of how this technique works:
GMO food crops use CRISPR-Cas9 to modify plant genetics to increase or create certain characteristics. Sometimes, this is done by adjusting the plant’s own DNA to turn on specific genes that are present in the genome but currently inactive, and sometimes, DNA from foreign species is inserted into the plant’s genes to activate traits the plant would never naturally have. Examples of the latter include inserting Flounder genes into the DNA of tomatoes in an effort to create a crop that resists frost damage, and inserting protein strains from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into corn to turn the plant into a self-contained pesticide.
But Wait, Doesn’t plant Breeding Modify Genes, too?
Technically speaking, yes. It’s the method of modifying those genetics that differs. The term genetic modification is admittedly a bit confusing considering the typical consumer’s understanding of plant genetics, but it’s the term that has been chosen by the industry to identify crops created through the use of biotechnology instead of breeding. That’s why some people prefer the term Bio-Engineered (BE) or Genetically Engineered (GE).
Pros and Cons
Hybrids are first generation crosses, and they experience a fun phenomenon called Hybrid Vigor (heterosis). This means that the offspring sometimes have increased biological functions, such as increased yield, height, pest resistance, etc. Hybrid vigor is great for farmers, who enjoy that extra boost in production or quality.
However, increasing a desirable trait can also sometimes result in inadvertently increasing an undesirable trait as well. In her book Animals in Translation, animal psychologist Temple Grandin shares an example of pig breeders who bred for leaner pigs and found that their lean pigs became more flighty and skittish than their fatter counterparts.
Additionally, most hybrids are only truly viable for a single generation, as they fall into one of two categories: (1) hybrids that are sterile and cannot produce offspring (such as mules), or (2) hybrids that do not always pass on to subsequent generations the same DNA that comprises their own makeup (such as apples, tomatoes, and corn). Some second generation offspring will express the desired traits, but not all. Breeding for those traits has to continue for several generations in order to get those traits to “normalize” or become standard for that variety.
In GMOs, desired traits can be activated in a lab using native OR foreign DNA. Like a hybrid, those traits are expressed in the first generation, but unlike hybrids, they are also expressed in subsequent progeny plants. That’s because the altered DNA is present in all the cells produced by the modified plant, so it (usually) passes that DNA onto its offspring. It’s much quicker than waiting through several generations for the desired traits to normalize. You can also be pretty specific about what traits you want expressed so that you’re not accidentally breeding neurotic pigs.
GMOs sound great, and they certainly have a lot of potential to change the world for the better. However, the technology is fairly new (at least compared to the thousands of years that we’ve been practicing traditional plant breeding), and it’s not perfect. Since much of the science supporting claims that GMOs are safe is proprietary, we don’t yet have a solid understanding of how regular, long-term consumption of GMO food affects our health and well-being. Genetic engineering can also lead to massive crop failures when an entire field of genetically similar plants all falls prey to the same devastating blight, an issue that is mitigated somewhat by the genetic diversity preserved by natural breeding. In addition, while GMO companies claim that their crops reduce the use of pesticides, the numbers don’t agree. Studies have have shown that GMO production increases pesticide use, and GMOs have also been linked with pesticide and herbicide resistance.
Gene Modification and Organics
As it currently stands, the National Organic Program (NOP) rules and regulations (7 CFR part 205) state:
A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture (§205.2).
In short, GMOs are not allowed in Organic because they are created with means that are “not possible under natural conditions or processes.” Hybrids are allowed because they are natural. While the organic program is far from perfect, this is one area I agree with.
That said, I’ll admit that I’m kind of on the fence about GMOs. I’m not a huge fan of the put-a-fish-gene-in-a-tomato aspect of it because I’m hesitant about the long-term ramifications of messing with nature, but “messing with nature” is exactly what got us things like life-saving vaccines. I’m okay with experimentation—as long as I’m not the guinea pig—and I recognize that genetic engineering might be the means of solving food crises around the world.
But I think there’s a better way.
MAS to the Rescue… Sometimes
Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) is kind of a hybrid (chuckle chuckle) of hybrids and GMOs. MAS is biotechnology and natural plant breeding. In MAS, scientists are able to identify and map gene markers that match the expression of desirable traits.Then, rather than waiting several generations for particular phenotype to normalize, they can predict which plants have the desired trait based on tiny tissue samples. Focusing on those plants speeds up the process of natural breeding without having to introduce foreign genes to accomplish the same things native genes are equipped to do. MAS also isn’t a perfect system, since there are some types of plants that it doesn’t work on, and you can’t force a plant to do something it doesn’t have existing genes for. But I think it has a lot of potential to bridge the gap between breeding and bioengineering food crops—and it’s allowed in Organic production.
What questions do you have about organic production? Leave your questions in the comments below, and I might write a whole post about it.
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 GMO Answers
 Bonny, S. (2011). Herbicide-tolerant Transgenic Soybean over 15 Years of Cultivation: Pesticide Use, Weed Resistance, and Some Economic Issues. The Case of the USA. Sustainability, [online] 3(9), pp.1302-1322. Available at: http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/3/9/1302/htm [Accessed 11 Jun. 2018].
 Science Magazine
 But not yet. GMO companies claim they will feed the world, but most of the GMOs currently on the market are modified to resist pests and herbicides manufactured by the same companies that make the GMO seeds. Only a few GMOs are actually modified to increase commercial viability, and none are modified to increase yield. Furthermore, GMO crops tend to have lower yields than their non-GMO counterparts.
Food photos courtesy of Viktor Hanacek