Good from the Ground Up? Genetically Engineered and Organic Plants

Efforts to produce power-packed plants may confuse organically minded consumers. Here is some insight to help you sort out what genetically engineered and organic really mean.

| March/April 2000

  • 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.”

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