Good from the Ground Up? Genetically Engineered and Organic Plants

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California poppy

You’ve done it–you’ve successfully switched to a healthier diet and more sustainable lifestyle. Now you wheel your grocery cart confidently down the organic food aisle, where you pause to read the ingredients on the box of soy burger mix, the bottle of double-garlic pasta sauce, the bag of all-natural potato chips. In the fresh produce section, you favor vegetables displayed under the “organically grown” sign. On the way to the checkout stand, you stop by the medicine aisle, where you choose herbal supplements as natural alternatives to synthetic medications. You’re taking better care of your body and the environment.

But just when you were feeling good and wholesome, a bevy of issues is coming to the fore. Europeans are demanding that Americans take a closer look at what happens to raw materials–also known as fruits, vegetables, and herbs–before we swallow them. People are asking questions: How organic is organic? What happens when we tamper with plants’ DNA? Is anything safe to ingest anymore? None of these concerns is easily addressed. But insight from those on the inside might help you keep your holistic resolve, despite the ebb and flow of uncertainty about the national food supply.

From the Seed Up

“Organic gardening is important from a socioeconomic perspective,” says Steven Foster, Herbs for Health lead editorial adviser, herbalist, and author. “Organic is a philosophy of treating the soil as a living organism, rather than just looking at the soil as a delivery system for getting nutrients to plants.”

So can a plant be considered truly organic if the seed it was grown from is not?

Vinnie McKinney, owner of Elixir Farm Botanicals near Brixey, Missouri, puzzles over this question. She is one of only a handful of U.S. growers who takes the time and effort to preserve seeds in their natural state, producing seeds free of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.

“Root stocks do take up herbicides and pesticides–we know this,” McKinney says. “You can’t take the seed and separate it out of the equation. We’re talking the web of life here.”

McKinney knows firsthand that organic seeds present hefty challenges in a world where quickly feeding a lot of people seems paramount. Organic seeds require more time, care, and money to nurture than seeds produced using faster methods, which include both chemical protection from pests and hybridization.

Yet ignoring organic seeds means that the public misses out, McKinney says.

“Food crops that come from organic seeds are probably nutritionally superior because, number one, they are not bred for the commodity market and, number two, they aren’t hybridized to withstand shipping and carry a longer shelf life,” she says.

Organic seeds not only provide a better product in terms of nutrition and taste, they also provide an unblemished link to generations-old plant resources, says Howard-Yana Shapiro, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and anthropology and studies food production practices of ancient civilizations. He also is vice president of agriculture and commercial at New Mexico-based Seeds of Change, one of the few sources of organic seeds in the United States.

But until U.S. agriculture shifts from its current practices to those that follow more sustainable models, he says, U.S. consumers can make organic choices with confidence.

“Consumers are smart,” Shapiro says. “They want to know, ‘Is this product just what I expect it to be? Give me concrete evidence.’ Because of that, today if it says ‘organic,’ it can’t be sprayed with any type of fungicide, herbicide, any of that.

“That’s not to say that we all trust the ‘organicness’ of a product,” he adds. “Coming up short on organic integrity is a concern. But I’m confident in the system–American standards for organics help provide assurance about that.”

From the Lab

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that one-fourth of all U.S. crops are genetically engineered.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that one-fourth of all U.S. crops are genetically engineered. Top on the list are corn and soybeans; according to USDA estimates, 40 percent of the corn crop and 45 percent of soybeans in the Unit­­ed States in 1998 were genetically modified.

For vegetarians and others who often turn to soy products as a protein source, this could be alarming news. In September 1999, Consumer Reports stated that its tests identified genetically engineered ingredients in several soy burgers, including Boca Burger Chef Max’s Favorite, Morningstar Farms Better ‘n Burgers, Green Giant Harvest Bur­gers (now called Morningstar Farms Harvest Burgers), and McVeggie Burgers sold in select New York City McDonald’s restaurants, and in three powdered infant formulas, including Enfamil ProSobee Soy Formula, Similac Isomil Soy Formula, and Nestle Carnation Alsoy.

Corn and soybeans are genetically altered to help them fend off life-threatening pests or to improve a particular characteristic. The gains to be had, supporters say, are nutrient-packed plants and greater yields, which would help feed the world’s ever-growing population.

Opponents, however, say that mass-marketing genetically modified foods should be considerably slowed until more research can be done. The potential dangers are evident in botched attempts to improve plants, they say. Take the failed super soybean, for example. Scientists spliced a gene from the Brazil nut into the soybean plant in an attempt to create a pest-resistant bean. But the biotech soybean could have been fatal to those suffering from severe allergies to nuts, a problem discovered before the new modification was mass-marketed.

Another example: Corn that has been genetically modified to kill the European moth, a deadly ravager of growing corn. Cornell researchers discovered that pollen from the biotech corn was fatal to mon­arch butterfly larvae, prompting some to view the monarchs as biotechnology’s canaries in the coal mine.

“The truth of it is, we really don’t know what the ultimate impact of biotechnology will be,” McKinney says. “And because we don’t know, we think whole is better.”

Still, the potential advantages hold ­appeal.

“Certainly, there must be some pressure on herb manufacturers to turn to this,” Shapiro says. “The demand [for herbs] is ever-growing, and the stated promises of genetic manipulation must make it tempting. But so far, it doesn’t appear to be happening.”

Foster agrees, then goes further.

“GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are not a concern in herbal supplement manufacturing because raw material needs are not that high,” he says. “Whenever an herbal ingredient becomes popular, like goldenseal, saw palmetto, or St.-John’s-wort, there is a year of shortage as demand overtakes supply. But by the end of the cycle, producers are coming out of the woodwork. Despite the popularity, there simply isn’t the incentive to do that sort of thing.”

Last July, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced that the U.S. government will begin long-term studies of GMOs and urged the biotech industry to proceed slowly. This represented a U.S. policy shift; in 1992, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruling sent products containing genetically modified ingredients to market quickly and without labels. Glickman’s July announcement came on the heels of European public outcry against U.S. genetic engineering practices. Last spring, the European Union steadfastly refused to import hormone-fed beef from the United States for fear it is genetically altered; now U.S. growers of genetically modified corn worry about their ­export business. Also in the United States, groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, and others are strongly urging the government to slow the speed of genetic engineering before, the groups say, it is too late to turn back.

In December, prominent U.S. antitrust lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against the Monsanto Company, accusing it, among other things, of rushing genetically engineered seeds to market without testing them for safety.

The combination of U.S. caution and growing activism, Shapiro says, may mean that producers of herbal supplements won’t be tempted, at least for a while, to turn to genetically modified crops at all.

Jan Knight, former editor of Herbs for Health, is a freelance writer and doctoral student at the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

Online seeds You can order organic seeds from Seeds of Change at ­Additionally, Ferry-Morse Seed Company has plans to launch its Source of Nature organic vegetable, flower, and herb seeds this spring. They can be ordered online at

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