Hybrids, GMOs: Not the Same

GMO Seed vs HybridNot an online discussion about the dangers of genetically modified foods goes by without someone claiming, “What’s the big deal? They’re no different than any other hybrid. Hybrids and cross-breeding are genetic manipulations, just like GMOs. The only difference is that they’re done in the laboratory.”

Okay, maybe that last bit is true. And there are similarities. It’s true that both hybrids and GMOs are genetic manipulations. Hybrids can occur naturally or they might be facilitated by humans. GMOs are always created in laboratories. GMOs and many F1 hybrids may both be realized in controlled conditions, but one is simply doing nature’s work: pollinating. GMOs involve gene splicing. Both are patented by the business/corporate owners (full disclosure: not all F1 hybrids are patented). What does the GMO patent mean? That you better be careful.

But there are differences. The negative effects of GMOs on diversity and organic crops are markedly more serious than corporate- controlled hybrids. You can grow the “Heritage Hybrid Tomato” or the “Brandy Boy Hybrid” organically (marketing alert: notice how these relatively recent hybrids carry names that suggest heirlooms). A genetically-modified plant can’t claim to be organic. Saving seed from F1 hybrids, say tomatoes, doesn’t mean you’ll get the same hybrid when planting the next year. They don’t reproduce “true.” Saving seed from GMO plants and putting them in the ground the following year may yield the same plant, but will unleash a plague of lawsuits, exorbitant fines, and worse.

The big — and deciding — difference is in the way and number their genes are manipulated. Let’s turn again to Joseph Tychonievich’s wonderful book Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener. Here’s how he describes the important distinction: “Traditional breeding introduces genetic diversity by bringing together all genes of two individuals, most of which have nothing to do with specific breeding aims. Genetic engineering instead inserts only one gene, one specific section of new DNA, into a single individual’s genome…” That one gene can come from anywhere, be it a fungus or a bacteria or even a fish.

When you practice cross-breeding in your garden, when a botanist controls pollination in his laboratory, the entire genome — all the genetic information — is combined. That’s why you won’t have any luck trying to cross breed corn with tomatoes (cormatoes!) or your dog with your cat. But you could take one gene from a disease-resistant corn and force it into a tomato’s DNA. Or you could take one gene from bacteria that’s harmful to some insect predator and see what results. In doing so, you change more than that single gene. You could decrease the plant’s nutritional value or, in fairness, maybe increase it. You might make something that’s toxic to humans as well as insects. You might make something that’s totally inedible. Who knows what you might end up with? The variables are endless. Some might be good, others might be bad, all in the same genetic modification.

Tychonievich tries not to take sides in the GMO argument. But it’s clear that he thinks genetic modification is a “powerful” technology. He grants that it could yield results which aren’t necessarily harmful. But he also suggests that it has the power to seriously disrupt ecosystems and do harm to humans. Never mind that it gives few corporations the power to control most of the world’s important food supplies. And that it could do major damage to the diversity of the world’s food crops. The irony here is that lawmakers and business men don’t seem to care about even the possibility of these consequences. Testing? Why bother? Labeling? Forget it.

Inserting a single gene from a completely different source, say a bacteria, could have catastrophic results if the result turns out bad and escapes from the laboratory (some genetic engineering involves removing a single gene from the chain). But we’ve already had GMOs created that produce their own poisons and/or are resistant to herbicide, allowing more poison to be sprayed on it. Those GMOs have not only been knowingly released from the laboratory, they’re showing up on our dinner plates.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with small farmers and home gardeners experimenting by cross-breeding plants to encourage desirable traits, whether it’s a better tasting tomato or a more fragrant carnation. It’s a natural process. Tychonievich explains, in detail, how it can be done. The process can take years or maybe just one growing season. And the results, as mother nature always is, can be unpredictable. But they won’t be evil. In fact, this kind of home breeding can be amazingly productive. More about that later. But for now… don’t tell us that GMOs aren’t any different than man-made hybrids. They most certainly are.

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