Nicole Patterson, Major: Biology, Hometown: Minneapolis, MN
Welcome to part one of our blog series “How Saving Seeds Can Save the World.” As a collaborative project between a University of Denver writing course “Food and Culture” and Feed Denver, four DU students will show how seed-saving can save the world. Each of the four parts of the series will tackle seed saving from a different angle.
For centuries, farmers and gardeners saved the seeds from their produce to put towards the next harvest. In fact, even one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was an avid seed collector and belonged to seed exchange groups where he would introduce new seed varieties to the farmers in his community.(1) It was common practice, even on large farms. As recent as 1960, the seed saving rate for US soybean farmers was 63%.(2) Saving seeds from harvest to harvest enables self-sustainability because farmers don’t need to buy seed annually. Each generation of saved seeds better adapts to the climate, which results in increased yield with less pesticides.
With the dawn of genetically modified seeds and commercial seed manufacturers, like Monsanto, seed saving has become virtually extinct. There has been a loss of heirloom seeds, which reproduce the same variety of plants for each succeeding harvest, and an explosion of genetically modified, many times sterile, seeds. This shift has completely changed the American food industry. Our supermarkets are filled with Monsanto patented, genetically modified foods. It is easy to look at a cereal box and find the nutritional information and the list of ingredients, but produce doesn’t come with a nutrition label. It must be safe, right?
I am an obsessive label reader. When I heard about this project, I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on, nutrition and health. While I definitely give in to my chocolate cravings now and then (OK, maybe on a daily basis) I try to eat as much fresh produce as possible. So how does seed saving tie into my nutrition obsession? To be honest I had never thought much about where my Safeway-bought fruits and veggies came from. I try to buy organic fruits and vegetables when my dwindling college budget allows. When buying organic, I thought that I was paying for less pesticides and contaminants. It never occurred to me that the genetic makeup of an organic tomato might be different from the non-organic variety. I thought that a tomato was a tomato, and seeds were well… seeds. I didn't know that my beautifully round tomatoes were genetically engineered to increase shelf life. After watching Robyn O’Brien’s talk about the adverse health consequences associated with GM (genetically modified) foods, I was propelled to delve deeper. I also wanted to know how seed saving could help consumers and producers take control over their own food sources.
Genetically Modified Foods are Bad News
We are bombarded with messages about eating organic, avoiding preservatives, and reading labels for artificial flavoring. Nutritional guidelines tell us that it is hard to go wrong if you focus on fresh, unprocessed food; however, genetically modified produce has proven to be harmful to our bodies. Now what is a genetically modified food? I will try not to get too technical, but genetically modified plants contain altered DNA. The DNA from the original plant is cut, and foreign DNA is strategically inserted in order to alter the plant’s characteristics. This all starts with the seed. Seed manufacturing companies, like Monsanto, genetically engineer seeds that will produce plants that last longer during transportation and maintain a near perfect aesthetic for picky shoppers. The GM seeds are also able to withstand large amounts of chemical pesticides and herbacides.(2) New copyrights laws and Supreme Court decisions have allowed the patenting of these genetically modified seeds, turning the seed market into a very competitive, industrialized industry. Monsanto is the leading culprit, producing 90% of the GM seeds in the US market.(3)
So what is so bad about GM plants? It all comes down to the foreign DNA and the increased use of pesticides and herbicides. Our bodies usually breakdown foreign DNA fragments before they can cause any damage; however, blood tests have shown that some foreign plant DNA may go undetected in the blood stream.(4) Whether or not the foreign DNA can be incorporated into our own DNA sequence is yet to be determined, but many animal studies have produced alarming evidence that GM foods are harmful. One study conducted with mice that were fed GM corn and soybeans showed significant disruptions in liver and kidney function. The GM food is having adverse, toxic effects on the mice. This is suggesting that the seed engineers are introducing harmful substances into the food by incorporating foreign genes. Monsanto has also been incorporating toxins into seed DNA like Bt, which actually functions as a pesticide to kill insects. Would we ever intentionally eat a toxic pesticide? Probably not, but the reality is that GM plants are being engineered with these chemical components.
If you watched Robyn O’Brien’s talk about GM foods, you would hear that she started researching the safety of GM foods after one of her children suffered a allergic reaction. The genes in GM plants produce new proteins that can possibly trigger an allergic reaction. The increase in GM food consumption has coincided with the increase in food allergies. Today, 89% of the soybean acres contain GM crop. It has been discovered that sections of the protein produced in genetically modified soy is identical to known allergens. The GM soy is much more likely to cause an allergic response than non-GM soy.(5)
Why is our government allowing dangerous GM seeds on the market? Many countries, such as France, Hungary, and Peru have already banned the use of some genetically modified seeds. Sarkozy himself said that “The French government keeps and will keep its opposition against the cultivation of the Monsanto 810 maize on our soil.”(2) The control of large seed companies, like Monsanto, has defined the US agricultural system. We are losing natural plant diversity, contaminating our soil with chemicals, and even worse we are polluting our bodies. Don’t we deserve, at the bare minimum, to know what we are putting into our bodies? Some states have tried to take a stand against GM food. California, for example, attempted to pass an amendment this year that would require the labeling of genetically modified foods. Unfortunately this amendment did not pass, but that does not mean that GM labeling is a lost cause. It is common practice in other countries.
How Can Saving Seeds Help?
To combat the growth of GM plants and to promote seed saving, there are many vehicles of change.
1. Ikuta, Benjamin. “Genetically Modified Plants, Patents, and Terminator Technology: The Destruction of the Tradition of Seed Saving” Hein Online. (2009) 567:571-72.
2. Mascarenhas, Michaeland and Bush, Lawrence. “Seeds of Change: Intellectual Property Rights, Genetically Modified Soybeans and Seed Saving in the United States” The Authors: Journal Compilation 2006
3. Gucciardi, Anthony and Barrett, Mike. “Monsanto Declared Worst Company of 2011” Natural Society. Dec. 6, 2011.
4. Dona, Artemis and Arvanitoyannis, Ioannis. “Health Risks of Genetically Modified Foods” Food Science and Nutrition. (2009) 49:2, 164-175.
5. Institute for Responsible Technology. “Genetically Engineered Foods May Cause Rising Food Allergies” Spilling the Beans. (2007).