Unless you grow your own or buy organic, the plants you eat are being genetically engineered. Read this genetic engineering of food crops article written from a logical, down-to-earth perspective by organic farmer Mort Mather.

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Click here to buy the classic organic gardening book Gardening for Independence, by Barbara and Mort Mather.
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Gardening for Independence by Barbara and Mort Mather.

by Mort Mather
published by Bald Mt. Press

Aren’t you glad the millennium talk is behind us? Software for the next millennium? Crap, I’d be ecstatic if they made software that was going to be usable five years from now. Think for a minute. It was barely half a millennium ago that Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Now that I’ve got you thinking about how long a millennium is I want you to think about 600,000 millennia ago. That is 600 million years. That is when genetic engineering began. Well, it wasn’t called that back then. In fact, nothing was called anything because that is back in the primordial mud when there wasn’t even a difference between plants and animals. It was along about then, give or take a few millennia, that the single celled life started to separate into plants and animals. Some of the cells began to be able to manufacture their own food from the sun through a chlorophyll-protoplasm combination. Some of these species still exist today among the algae.

Jump ahead 200 million years and we find that plants have developed some specialization of parts into organs resulting in the root-stem-leaf pattern. It should be obvious to you that the single-celled algae didn’t just suddenly develop these separate organs. Heavens, somewhere along the way they grew into multi-celled plants. And even after developing the root-stem-leaf pattern they didn’t really have a structure we would recognize but it was enough to make it possible for them to come onto land. Mosses might be pretty close to the first plants coming ashore, just for the sake of trying to picture the earth’s garden say 300 million years ago.

Those early plants didn’t reproduce very well. Somehow, through changes in the genes, they learned new ways to reproduce. They started producing seeds. Descendants of these early confers are pines and redwoods. Why, it wasn’t any time after that before genes recombined themselves to form plants with flowers and seeds that were protected in fruit. That was about 150 million years ago. Imagine, it only took 450 million years to go from single-celled-neither-plant-nor-animal to the first flower.

Enough of that million-year stuff. Let’s get to a time frame that is easier to grasp--millennia! Between 5 and 10 millennia ago, depending on where in the world you were, people started improving their food source. Rather than gathering nuts, berries and vegetables where they could find them they started cultivating, transplanting, and planting them. In the process they would choose plants that best suited their needs and tastes. While nature had been doing the selecting for 600 million years now humans were doing some selecting of their own.

We’ll use Luther Burbank as the benchmark for the next change since he may be the most recognized name in plant breeding though he isn’t credited with beginning the process. It was about 125 years ago that he started taking the pollen from one plant and fertilizing the fruit of another plant thus creating a hybrid. He couldn’t tell if the qualities of the male or the female would dominate. It was like George Bernard Shaw’s response to the beautiful actress who told him they should have children together because they would have her beauty and his intelligence. He pointed out that they might have his looks and her intelligence.

Mr. Burbank had to first choose plants with the qualities he deemed desirable, then to cross-breed them, then to select the best of the results, to plant the seeds of the best and to select again. At this point he had an F2 hybrid. When he got to F7, seven years later for most plants, he could count on just about all the seeds producing a plant true to the parent. That seed no longer need be considered a hybrid. If you are wondering why some seeds are F1 or F2 hybrids from seed companies for years and years, it is because they don’t want you to save the seed. You can save the seed of a hybrid and the way things are going you may want to. You just have to do your own selecting of the best each year until you are sure all the seeds will reproduce true to form.

Then the scientists started getting more impatient. They tried zapping seeds with X-rays hoping to jostle the genes around inside there. It worked and they got mutant varieties. They selected from these and were able to develop some new varieties that were worthwhile but the process was hit or miss and no less time consuming than hybridization.

Then things really started to move rapidly. The first gene was transferred between plant organisms in 1973. Just 14 years later the first genetically engineered plants were planted in the big outdoors. In 1995 genetically engineered plants were growing on commercial acreage. Today more than half the soybean crop is genetically engineered. Soya is in so many foods that it is very difficult to keep genetically engineered food out of your shopping cart or out of your body for that matter even if you want to. There is no labeling requirement. The only way you can have assurance that what you eat has not been genetically engineered is to grow it yourself or buy food that has been certified organic.

So what? Is there any reason someone should not want to eat genetically altered food? Nobody knows. There has been no testing to see if the genetically altered food is more or less toxic, more or less nutritious, interacts in any way with anything else in a human body differently than the non altered plant. Oh, I take that back. Testing of genetically altered plants in human bodies was begun five years ago when genetically altered plants started to be grown commercially. It is not a controlled experiment, however. In fact, in the case of soybeans, the altered and non altered beans are all mixed together in the storage, transport and processing of them.

What is genetic engineering and how is it different from plant breeding?

You can get good descriptions of gene splicing from a lot of sources. This will be a not-so-good description. Think of barcodes. If barcodes in the supermarket broke the products down into their components, you could find the bar in the Oreo barcode that denoted the white filling, cut that bar out of the Oreo barcode and paste it into the graham cracker barcode. The result would be a graham cracker sandwich. Of course, the actual result would be the scanner at the checkout rejecting the new barcode but you get the idea.

Monsanto has an herbicide called Roundup. It does a great job killing plants. The problem is that it also kills the plants that the farmer wants to grow. The herbicide doesn’t kill all plants apparently. As you must know I have no experience with any herbicide and am relying on what I have read. There are some gaps that I’ve had to fill in. I’m guessing that some plants aren’t killed by Roundup and that those plants made it possible for the geneticists to locate the gene that resisted the herbicide. Once they found that gene they spliced it onto a soybean chromosome and, behold, Roundup Ready® Soybeans.

If the plant that has the herbicide resistant gene is a legume, a member of the same plant family as soybeans; then I would say this particular gene splicing might be comparable to plant breeding. I have never heard of crossing clover with beans or beans with peas but at least they all share a Latin name which denotes some similarity between them. Certainly different beans can be crossbred just like different species of dogs can crossbreed. I guess that dogs could crossbreed with other canines--wolves, coyotes, foxes. But could a dog and a cat be crossbred? No. Could you fertilize the egg of one with the sperm from the other in a laboratory experiment? I don’t think so. OK, so maybe you believe that science is so wonderful that they could cross a cat and a dog. How about a cat and a horse? A dog and a crow? A fish and a person? You believe in mermaids? Boy, you are tough. How about a sunflower and a cow?

Is there anyone out there who thinks that a sunflower can crossbreed with a cow or any other animal? If so, please get help. But, while this can’t be done through breeding, qualities of an animal can be introduced into a plant through genetic engineering. The claim that genetic engineering is the same as breeding is bizarre.

When I talk about animal genes being spliced into plants I am not talking about what could be or may be in the far off future. The geneticists are already doing it. They have put a bacteria gene in a potato plant-- NewLeaf® potatoes are in a field near you and a supermarket even closer. They put a gene from a Brazil nut in soybeans to get a nutritionally balanced amino acid composition. How about a fish gene in tomatoes to make them more frost tolerant?

What’s the hurry?

Monsanto points out that the population of the world will double by 2040 and, in their opinion, genetic engineering will save the world from starvation. They point to the fact that corn yields per acres have increased dramatically over the years through plant breeding. Genetic engineering is whole heaps faster. No argument there. But can plants be engineered to grow without nutrients and if they can, are they going to provide us with nutrients? Since most plant nutrients on factory farms come from petroleum products and petroleum is a finite substance that will become increasingly scarce, that may be a problem that genetic engineering can’t solve.

Nonetheless engineered plants are being commercialized at an amazing rate. Consider the amount of time it takes for the approval of a drug. Drugs have all sorts of controls, won’t be taken by the population in general and can be closely monitored by physicians yet it takes about 14 years of testing before a drug can be introduced into usage. This is the case even when people are literally dying while waiting for a drug’s approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Similarly pesticides and herbicides have to be approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and new plant species have to be approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). So what about a plant that is genetically engineered to contain a gene that kills the insects that eats the plant. Isn’t it a new plant, a pesticide and it is surely being sold as a food? The following story is so unbelievable I’m telling it as a joke. Something similar was told to me as being what actually happened but I’ll follow this story with a story that you may also find hard to believe.

This has got to be a joke. The USDA said, “We don’t have to regulate this plant because it is not a new plant but rather a new pesticide.” The EPA said, “We don’t have to regulate this plant because it is a food.” And the FDA said, “We don’t have to regulate this plant because it is an insecticide.”

What happened for the record is pretty close. The FDA decided in 1992 that they would not consider the process by which a food was developed but just its character. They said in effect, “If it looks like a potato and it smells like a potato and it tastes like a potato, it is a potato and our review is over. That little gene shift that causes the Colorado potato beetle to roll over and die is of no concern to us.” The EPA said, “Yep, Colorado potato beetles sure do die when they eat those NewLeaf potatoes and the substance that kills them is Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.) which is already registered as a pesticide so we’ll register NewLeaf as a legal pesticide.” The USDA’s job is to see to it that new plant varieties pose no threat to production agriculture or to the environment during cultivation. They are gleeful in their support of genetically engineered plants. The following from the web site of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS):

Over the past year, there has been a continuous flow of requests for determinations by APHIS that particular field-tested organisms have no potential for plant pest risk and should no longer be regulated. These requests, from developers of new products produced through biotechnology, facilitate the entry of the products into the marketplace. Sixteen new products in seven crop plants were the subject of such determinations in the past 28 months.

They are just tickled pink to tell us that they agree with the industry that the industry doesn’t need to be regulated most of the time. They are so eager to help that they are lobbying other countries to accept biotechnology. In at least one instance inappropriate pressure was brought to bear on another country. New Zealand had plans to test and label genetically engineered food. Our government threatened to pull out of a potential free-trade agreement. Wouldn’t that make us angry if another government tried to pressure us that way?

I don’t know why genetically engineered plants are moving so fast. The industry says it is because it is so expensive to develop these plants. I don’t think it is expensive compared to what Luther Burbank was doing. Perhaps the reason it is expensive is that there are a few big companies competing with each other and they are putting a lot of money into the race to grab a market advantage.

A report by Dr. William Heffernan at the University of Missouri, Columbia, MO for the National Farmers Union gives the best picture of how few and how big the companies are. He identifies the three largest food chain clusters as Cargill/Monsanto, Con/Agra, and Novartis/ADM and he diagrams a fantastic collection of companies along the food chain-- Monsanto with genes and seeds and Cargill with fertilizer, grain collection and processing and production and processing of beef, pork, turkeys and broilers. Cargill recently purchased Continental Grain which means it “would control more than 40 percent of all corn exports, a third of all soybeans exports and at least 20 percent of wheat exports.” (Grainnet, 12/1998). “Reports suggest Cargill paid about one billion dollars for Continental (Wall Street Journal, 11/11/98 p.A10). That is only about half of their 1998 income. Cargill could buy two operations the size of Continental’s global grain division with one year’s earnings. That is economic power.” (Consolidation in the Food and Agricultural System by Dr. William Heffernan) The report was an insert in the April 1999 issue of Small Farm Today (Formerly Missouri Farm Magazine), 3903 W. Ridge Trail Rd, Clark, MO, (800) 633-2535.

Implications to family farmers of genetically modified organisms

A family farm can be defined as a farm where the farming decisions are made on the farm. The statistics show a steady decline of family farms and a steady increase in factory farms. The factory farms are a link in the chain from gene to market. The same company or complex of companies owns the entire process so that there is no sale until the food reaches the consumer--no seed price, no cost of production, no sale of a crop or cost of packing, processing, handling. Decision-making for factory farms is concentrated in the boardroom of a few large corporations whose mission is corporate profit.

Family farms come in a wide range of sizes. The larger a family farm is the more susceptible it is to pressures from the large corporations. If there are only one or two places they can sell the volume of grain they are producing, they may be told what variety of seed to plant. They are sandwiched between two divisions of the same mega corporation.

On the other hand, these corporations leave behind many niche markets where farmers can sell directly or nearly directly to consumers. As consumers learn more about genetic engineering and some of the problems that come with globalization of the food industry the demand for locally grown food increases. More and more people want to have a face attached to their food or to see some label indicating the food is certified to meet some strict standard.

Currently the most recognized standard for food purity is “organic.” (see Mother Earth News, Sept 1998). The greatest short-term impact of genetic engineering will probably fall on organic farmers who use Bacillus thuringiensis. This is a naturally occurring bacteria that kills lepidopteron, insects that are butterflies or moths at some time in their lives. It will kill any lepidopteron that eat it. More recently a strain of Bt was found that killed Colorado potato beetles. These are valuable tools for organic growers. It is used sparingly, only when insects are in such numbers that it is necessary.

Now that Bt is in every cell of engineered corn, potatoes and cotton it is a certainty that the insects will soon build up a tolerance. Even the scientists who did the genetic engineering agree that this will happen. They have said that these crops should be planted with a buffer so that insects that get a non-lethal dose will mate with insects from the buffer and somehow this will delay the inevitable a few years. I have read a paper in Science magazine (7 May 1999) that says the theory behind this strategy is flawed but why even bother to argue the point. The farmers aren’t leaving the buffers. The seed companies don’t care. The USDA doesn’t care. The EPA doesn’t care. And the monster gene companies are telling the gullible not to worry, that they will find something to replace Bt once it becomes ineffective. Which is more worrisome, what they come up with next or the possibility that they will destroy a safe insecticide and not find a replacement? Either way they will make organic farming more difficult and thus more expensive. That’s one way to hurt the competition.

Implications to consumers of genetically modified organisms

Remember the soybean that had a Brazil nut gene spliced into it? It looked and tasted and smelled like soybeans so it would have passed the FDA test of not being something they should test or have tested or regulate. That seed was not brought to market because testing by the company that developed it revealed that people allergic to Brazil nuts would be allergic to the new soybean.

The industry might point to this example and say, “See. The system works.” Not exactly. In this case there were already people who had been identified as being allergic to Brazil nuts. The serum from this group of people was used to determine that they would also be allergic to the engineered soybeans. What about the genes from plants, animals and bacteria that people have never eaten before? There will be no test group, well, no small test group. I personally don’t feel comfortable being included in a test of this magnitude with no control. How do you feel?

John B. Fagan, Ph.D. in Assessing The Safety And Nutritional Quality Of Genetically Engineered Foods puts it this way:

To protect the health and safety of the consumer, it is necessary to ascertain that all genetically engineered foods are free of allergens and toxins, and are unaltered in nutritional value before they are placed on the market. To assure the safety of genetically engineered foods, it is essential to test for health hazards derived from all three sources of risk presented above, (1) risks foreseeable based on the characteristics of the unmodified organism, (2) risks foreseeable based on the characteristics of the gene source, and (3) risks due to unintended changes in functioning of the food-producing organism caused by genetic manipulations, themselves.

At present, regulations in most countries governing the safety testing of genetically engineered foods focus almost entirely on health hazards that can be anticipated from the characteristics of the unmodified organism, and the gene source. However, accidental introduction of allergens and toxins through genetic manipulations and unintended alterations in nutritional value resulting from genetic manipulations constitute a very real source of health risk from genetically engineered foods. Therefore safety testing should be structured in such a way as to detect and eliminate products that contain these hazards. The discussion below presents science-based arguments that establish the actuality of these genetic engineering-induced hazards, and presents testing strategies capable of protecting consumers from these as well as other hazards.

The rest of the paper being quoted her can be found here.

Implications to the environment of genetically engineered organisms

Think about pollen. It is light. Pollen floats easily on light air movement and can be blown great distances. You don’t have to drive past a hay field to get hay fever. People living in cities can tell when ragweed or goldenrod pollen is in the air. When a plant is genetically altered, all of it is altered--its roots, its stems, its leaves, its flowers and its pollen.

Researchers at Cornell University wondered if the Bt in the pollen of genetically engineered corn would be harmful to other lepidopteron insects than the corn borer for which it was intended. They dusted the pollen on milkweed, the favorite food of the monarch butterfly. Nearly half the monarch caterpillars that ate the milkweed leaves with Bt corn pollen died after four days. Those that didn’t die ate half as much as the caterpillars who were on milkweed with normal corn pollen. None of the caterpillars eating milkweed that was dusted with normal corn pollen died.

Does this mean that we can expect monarch butterflies to be on the endangered species list soon? Probably not. Critics of the experiment say that the experimenters used much more corn pollen than would normally settle on the leaves of milkweed. However, it can’t be denied that the pollen is toxic to butterflies and moths, probably all butterflies and moths. To think that unleashing this toxic substance in the quantities that corns field will do every year will have no effect on butterfly and moth populations is ludicrous.

Researchers in Switzerland tested the effect of Bt corn on lacewings. Lacewings are an insect beneficial to farmers and gardeners because they eat other insects including the corn borer. Lacewings fed corn borers that had eaten Bt corn had a higher death rate and delayed development compared with lacewings fed corn borers that had eaten regular corn.

Researchers at New York University found evidence that Bt toxins from genetically engineered crops may accumulate in the soil killing some soil-inhabiting insects. (Most of the information in this section came from Nature magazine.)

What can/should we do? What can we do?

Genetically engineered test crops in India and Europe have been destroyed by activists. The first engineered test plot to be destroyed in this country was a half acre of Roundup-resistant corn at the University of Maine. Roundup is an herbicide Monsanto sells. By engineering crops so they are resistant to the herbicide farmers can spray the herbicide on fields where their crops are growing. The crops will survive but the weeds will not. The researchers at the University of Maine were testing to see if the product worked. It’s pretty safe to say that the product would do what Monsanto says it will do. Important research is research that will determine if it is safe to release into our environment and into our food chain.

Thanks to our government regulatory agencies and the genetic engineering industry genetically engineered foods are already in our food chain. Half of the soybeans grown in this country are genetically engineered and the engineered beans are mixed with much of the rest of the crop. When Europeans said they didn’t want genetically engineered soybeans the industry had a major problem on their hands. Soybeans are used in many, many processed foods including baby food and yogurt. About one-third of the corn grown in this country is now engineered and that goes into corn starch and corn syrup which shows up in another wide band of processed food including naturally sweetened soft drinks. It is no wonder that the industry flooded Maine with lobbyists to defeat a bill calling for the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

As an advocate of organic farming practices I should be pleased. The only way you can avoid genetically engineered food is to grow your own or buy certified organic food. The greater the demand for organic food the more rapidly the supply will grow. The industry’s violently opposed to any labeling requirement will help promote organic agriculture.

I have to put aside my self-interest on this one and become an activist against the release of genetically engineered plants into our environment and our food chain. There are many actions we can take.

We can talk about it among ourselves. What is happening is outrageous. It is a good topic of conversation. Spread the rage.

Letters to the editor will also help increase people’s awareness of what is being foisted upon us.

Letters to your US Senators and Representative are important. A few heartfelt letters from real people who are their constituents can have a major impact. One letter like that is worth hundreds generated by an organization.

Letters to the USDA, USEPA and USFDA will also have an impact. So much of what they do is watched only by the industry lobbyists. We need to let them know that we are watching and that their job is to protect our environment and our food supply.

We can support organizations like Green Peace and Farm Aid that are speaking out against genetic engineering. There are organic organizations active in most states that will be stronger and be able to do more with your financial and moral support.

Buy organic food and make sure no seeds you buy have been genetically engineered.

Become an activist. Ask your state legislator to sponsor a bill requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food. Wouldn’t it be fun to stretch Monsanto’s lobbying efforts out to all 50 state legislatures?

Activist Nancy Oden was trying to work through channels to have the test plots at the University of Maine terminated when the field was cut down in the night. Since those who cut down the corn were not around to be interviewed Nancy became the spokesperson for all of us who might have felt the act was justified. She responded to the accusation that the citizens who took matters into their own hands were not the eco-terrorists the researchers dubbed them to be. She said, “Monsanto is the real eco-terrorist here for destroying the integrity of earth’s life forms, and for forcing us to eat their genetically mutilated foods without our knowledge and consent. We are just guinea pigs so Monsanto can sell more Roundup.”

I think she got it right.

In the big picture we are an insignificant blip. But I have no doubt that there will be more genetic changes in the next millennium than there have been in the past 20 millennia. I am predicting that the changes in species will happen at least 20 times faster than ever before in the history of our planet. Rapid change is very, very difficult to live through, literally. Some of the changes will be intended like those documented in this article. The scary changes are the ones that are not intended. There will undoubtedly be unintended changes resulting from intended changes. No one knows what effect they will have on our species. I am amazed that there are those who don’t find it scary to be fooling around with the creators barcode.

© 1999, Mort Mather.
Not to be retransmitted or rebroadcast without express permission.

Here's what Mort Mather has to say for himself:

I'm a past president (3 terms) of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and have been writing a garden column for 25 years. I write garden articles for Mother Earth News which is where Scott Supak found me and offered to run a web site for me. I wrote a book, Gardening For Independence that can be purchased through I have been gardening organically on the same plot of soil in southern Maine since 1972 including 5 years with a one acre market garden. I've taught organic gardening and have been answering garden questions for quite a while through my column and on the web. That doesn't mean you can't stump me though. Vegetables are my specialty.

Click here to ask Mort a question (or to review his organic gardening and vegetable gardening FAQ! Mort Mather photographed here with his wife Barbara. Photo by Scott Supak, 1999.


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