What Are GMO Seeds?
Let me begin by saying this is a highly HIGHLY controversial topic. Some people/scientists say that GMOs are life-saving and can provide a necessary food source for people and livestock. These genetically modified plants can withstand things like disease, weeds, pests, drought, and more making it easier for farmers to grow food for the masses.
Others argue that modifying our food source in this way is unnatural and has permanent and negative consequences for our food supplies.
I will do my best to show two sides of this issue, and allow you to come to your own conclusions based on the information that I provide. I also encourage you to do your own research with an open mind.
I don’t have a personal agenda here, and I am still sorting out my own feelings and thoughts on GMOs. The purpose of this post is to provide you with a solid amount of information that will help you sort through the myths and better understand what GMO seeds are.
What Does Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Mean?
GMO is often considered the nasty word of gardening — especially to those who are interested in growing a garden clean of pesticides, herbicides, and anything that would be deemed “unnatural.”
So what are GMOs and are they harmful to consumers?
Again, there’s a big debate here, and I think a fair bit of confusion and misunderstanding as well, so let’s look at this one point t a time.
1. Home Gardeners Unlikely to Buy Genetically Modified Seeds
First off… unless you are a farmer, you probably don’t have to worry about buying GMO seeds. Yes, you’ll see “GMO-free” labels on seed packets that you buy at your local nursery, but they’re not really reporting much. It’s the same thing when you see “Gluten-free” on something that never has gluten in it. It’s technically true, but it’s also a bit of a marketing gimmick.
There are some farm crops such as field corn, alfalfa, sugar beets, cotton, and soybeans that have been genetically modified, but your typical pack of seeds for your home garden will not include GMOs. The USDA has a list of bioengineered food you can check out if you’re interested.
2. What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms are also known as:
- Genetic modification
- GM seeds
- Biotech seeds
- Genetic engineering
- Transgenic crops
Seeds that have been genetically modified have been changed in a laboratory setting through synthetic means. A hybrid seed is not the same thing as a GMO.
The USDA writes, “‘GMO’ (genetically modified organism) has become the common term consumers and popular media use to describe a plant, animal, or microorganism that has had its genetic material (DNA) altered through a process called genetic engineering.”
Corn is the most commonly grown crop in the United States that uses GMOs. While you’re unlikely to find GMO corn for sale for your garden, you are very likely to find it at the grocery store primarily in processed foods.
Corn that has been genetically modified might be engineered to tolerate herbicides such as Roundup. The FDA writes, “Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn is a GMO corn that produces proteins that are toxic to certain insect pests but not to humans, pets, livestock, or other animals. These are the same types of proteins that organic farmers use to control insect pests, and they do not harm beneficial insects, such as ladybugs. GMO Bt corn reduces the need for spraying insecticides while still preventing insect damage. While a lot of GMO corn goes into processed foods and drinks, most of it is used to feed livestock, like cows, and poultry, like chickens.”
3. Why Do GMO Seeds Exist?
GMOs have been created to make it easier for farmers to produce a lot of crops with fewer problems. Here are some of the reasons they developed GMO seeds
- Increase nutrients in plants
- Create drought-resistant plants
- Create disease-resistant plants
- Develop pest-resistant plants
- To make herbicide-resistant plants
4. How Are GMO Seeds Made?
Not all GMO or bioengineered seeds are made the same way. I’ll share some videos below of how some of GMO seeds have been made throughout the past few years.
In my opinion, this video does a good job talking about both sides (and the middle) of the GMO debate while offering information about what GMOs are, how they are created, and their pros and cons.
The FDA explains the steps taken to create a GMO seed.
- Identify the gene that gives an organism a desired trait
- Copy that trait
- Insert that DNA trait into a different organism
- Grow the new organism
5. Why Are People Wary of GMOs?
Frankenfood. A term you may have heard of to refer to genetically modified foods.
A lot of people who are anti-GMO recognize the cost-savings that can happen with these bioengineered foods, and also realize that GMOs can help fight against food insecurity when farmers are spending less and growing more. However, they believe that the costs don’t outweigh the benefits.
Here are some reasons that some people believe GMOs are bad:
- It’s unnatural. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of foods being genetically altered in a lab rather than occurring naturally.
- Potential negative impact on the environment. Many people feel that GMOs are not good for the environment. For example, people that think roundup is bad for the environment are troubled by farmers growing plants that are resistant to it and using roundup to kill everything else, even plants that might be beneficial.
- Montana State University writes, “Research indicates that GM crop technology can result in a net increase in herbicide use and can foster the growth of herbicide-resistant weeds.”
- “In addition, there is concern that the use of GM crops may negatively impact the agriculture ecosystem.” (The article does go on to say that research shows GMOs might have a positive effect on the environment that outweighs possible negative impacts).
- Concern that GMOs will lead to super weeds. Some argue that GM crops will cause superweeds that can’t be taken care of with known herbicides. However, these superweeds may be the result of repeated herbicides rather than the result of GM crops.
- Pest-resistant crops don’t stop all pests. Michigan State University writes, “As major insect pests succumb to Bt crops, other secondary pests that aren’t affected by Bt toxin often take advantage of the lack of competition…”
- “A well-known instance of this occurred in China, where widespread use of Bt cotton allowed farmers to effectively control the destructive cotton bollworm while reducing pesticide use. It dramatically improved yields and cut pest management costs. The bollworm’s decline, however, allowed the population of mirid bug, historically a minor pest of cotton plants that is not effected by Bt toxin, to increase. This again led to increased pest control costs as farmers contended with a new threat that their previous practices couldn’t contain.”
- GMOs might disrupt the natural environment. As in the point above, there is concern that GM plants will disrupt the natural order of the environment. James Hancock, professor in the MSU department of agriculture writes,
- “Any time you have a successful crop variety – GMO or not – that everyone wants to plant, you inevitably reduce the biodiversity in farm fields.”
- The article continues by saying, “Due to the effectiveness of herbicide-resistant crops, plants like common milkweed have been all but eliminated from most crop fields. While beneficial to crops, the loss of milkweed has been linked to new challenges facing insects like the monarch butterfly, which has experienced a population decline of about 80 percent in the last two decades.”
- I would add that the indiscriminate use of herbicides and the creation of a monoculture are the primary problems with this variety of GMO.
6. GMO Seeds are Not Hybrid Seeds
Sometimes people confuse a hybrid seed with bioengineered seeds, but they’re not the same thing. A hybrid is made when two varieties of the same plant species are mixed to create a new variety.
The mix of two varieties of seeds in the same family might be used to make a plant that’s resistant to blight while still maintaining the flavor people love. In fact, many people cross heirloom seeds in order to achieve the best of two types of plants.
This year I purchased mini-cucumber seeds. As far as I know, this variety of cucumber is only available as a hybrid.
7. What is Monsanto and Why is it Part of the GMO Debate?
In almost every discussion about GMO you’re going to hear about Monsanto. Why? Because Monsanto is a company that sells GMO glyphosate-resistant seeds and the herbicide glyphosate.
Glyphosate is more commonly known as Roundup, and the seeds they sell are referred to as “Roundup Ready.” (Other companies besides Monsanto sell glyphosate as well, but Monsanto’s Roundup is the most used one).
You won’t find Monsanto seeds at your local nursery for your home garden, but if you are a farmer there’s a good chance you’re using them.
Today, Monsanto is owned by the German company Bayer. While the name changed, the products remain largely the same and people still refer to the company as Monsanto.
Some of the reasons people don’t like or are concerned about Monsanto are:
- Produced Agent Orange, an herbicide with deadly consequences
- Produced DDT, a pesticide that caused damage to humans and wildlife
- Monsanto acquired a seed company that had created seeds that were sterile. These sterile seeds can be sold so that farmers couldn’t save seed for the following year and would be forced to purchase new seeds every year. These seeds were called “terminator seeds.” Although they acquired the patent, Monsanto has yet to use the technology due to the controversy surrounding it.
- Roundup (glyphosate) is believed by some to increase the risk of cancer. Although Bayer strongly argues that there is no link between their herbicide and the risk of cancer, they have paid out money in many lawsuits from people who say they developed cancer after using the product.
8. Are GMOs Banned Throughout the World?
Quite a few countries in Europe have banned the cultivation of GMO crops in their country, but most allow them to be imported. When I tried to research which countries have banned GMOs, it was difficult to find a reliable source that was up-to-date, so I don’t feel confident sharing which countries currently do not allow GMOs.
It does seem to be a shifting thing, as some countries ban and some countries adopt GMOs. In 2023, there may be some countries allowing GMOs for the first time, and others banning them after using them.
One article, for example, states that Mexico is planning on banning GMOs by 2024.
9. GMOs Are Used Abundantly in Farming in the United States
If you live in the United States and eat food from the grocery store, there’s a good chance you’ve already eaten GMOs. At the beginning of 2022, food manufacturers in the US had to share with consumers if they’ve used GMOs or GMO ingredients in their foods. You’ll see it labeled as “bioengineered” on the label.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 90% of corn, upland cotton, and soybeans grown in the US are GMOs. Most of those planted are herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant.
Many farmers, whether small or large, use GMO seeds as well as pesticides and herbicides to control crops.
10. Are GMO Seeds Good or Bad?
The answer depends on who you ask. Some people believe it’s the best thing for a secure food source both for people and for livestock, others believe we’re tampering with nature in a way that’s dangerous.
If you’re asking my personal opinion, I could see some advantages of GMOs, but my biggest problems (based on my current knowledge) are this:
- Will we reach a point of no return? Will there be a point in bioengineering when we can’t undo what we’ve done? Will we have transformed our food too far from their original nature, so that we can’t return to how they were should something go wrong?
- GMO crops can spread pollen to neighboring farms and lands. Crops like corn are at risk for pollen drift or crosspollinating with non-GMO varieties.
- Monocrops, herbicides, and pesticides. GMOs, especially those that are “Roundup ready” further promote monocrop farming practices and the use of herbicides. Many people agree that this is not the most sustainable way to farm, but many farmers trying to make enough money to survive will grow crops that provide an income.
- Here is an excerpt from a PBS source stating some arguments against GMO crops, and I tend to agree with this concept.
- “GM crops will also further our reliance on vast monocultures, objectors state. (Just 15 food crops today supply 90 percent of the world’s food and energy intake.) Many small farmers in the developing world maintain a rich diversity of flora; in India alone, farmers raise some 50,000 plant varieties. These plants thrive under different climatic and environmental conditions, providing insurance against drought or disease or locust swarms.”
- “Lacking such insurance, farmers of monocultures are vulnerable to lethal attacks by disease and pests. In the 1970s, for example, corn blight devastated the U.S. corn crop; in 1975 Indonesian farmers lost half a million acres of rice to the rice hopper insect. GM monocultures will possess similar susceptibilities. If pests evolve tolerance to a crop’s built-in insecticide, say, or if weeds develop immunity to weed killers sprayed over fields of herbicide-resistant GM plants, that crop — and the people who count on it — could suffer.”
- GMO seeds need to be purchased every year. GMO seeds have limited suppliers and Bayer/Monsanto and other GMO seed suppliers do not allow farmers to save seeds from year to year. This puts a lot of power/control of the food market into the hands of a few powerful companies. Farmers wanting to compete in today’s may feel their only option is to purchase these GMO seeds.
With all that being said, I do understand why GMOs can also provide benefits to farmers and the crops they grow. The papaya plant in Hawaii is a particularly compelling argument, as it looked as though the papaya farming industry there was falling apart without the intervention of bioengineering.
I would imagine if I polled farmers in my area, many of them would say these seeds are beneficial to growing an abundant harvest.
Further Information About GMO Seeds
I enjoy research and I like to be informed when I’m forming my opinion on a topic. I am including a list of sources here where you can learn more about GMOs. Some are pro-GMOs while others are antI-GMOs. Some I believe are neutral. I did my best to find sources that were somewhat reliable and not overly inflammatory.
PBS list of arguments against GMOs
Britannica list of pros and cons of GMOs
National Library of Medicine discussion of shifting public opinion of GMOs
FDA/USDA science and history of GMOs
FDA/USDA how GMOs are regulated in the US
Purdue’s overview of what are GMOs
Non-GMO Project list of facts about GMOs
National Geographic Overview of GMOs (includes information on GMO salmon)
Debating Europe: arguments for and against GMOs
What to Buy If You Don’t Want to Purchase GMO Seeds?
I have personally grown very interested in growing heirloom seeds. I like heirloom seeds because they can be saved and replanted the following year which gives me the opportunity to be more self-sufficient and independent. If a seed company no longer wants to sell a seed I love, I will have it in stock. It also saves money when you save seeds from year to year.
You can learn this and way more about heirloom seeds in my blog post: What Are Heirloom Seeds?
What Do You Think About GMO Seeds?
I know this topic is controversial, but I think the best way to understand something is to gain education and look at it from many different angles.
What is your opinion of GMO seeds? Did you learn something from this post? Did your opinion change at all? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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I am interested in the topic of GMOs as well! This article was so informative and i learned something new! Thanks for sharing.
Ned and Hannah
Thank you for reading!