It is no secret to any of you that I LOVE food. I love the amazing diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables I can find right here in the middle of nowhere North Dakota. I also love learning about how that diversity of fruits and vegetables came to be. I am constantly amazed when I dig deeper into the history of our crops and what is being done with technology today in order to improve those crops in an ever-changing planet and climate.
I don’t know about you, but I never really gave too much thought to the beautiful, sweet strawberries I purchase in the grocery store when I am reaching for that container. They are just there and I know I really love eating them. I’ve been flabbergasted to dig into the history of crops and how they came to be on my grocery store shelf, each one has a unique story and history.
I am not a scientist, however, thanks to social media I’ve been blessed with the ability to learn from and communicate with scientists across the globe. And I have thoroughly enjoyed learning from all of them about my favorite foods. And if any scientist reading this finds any errors in my narrative, please let me know! Trying to break down extremely complex processes is difficult, but I try my best!
So in light of that, I wanted to share with you some of the things I’ve learned from scientists about our food. I hope you may learn something new and you’ll be just as pleasantly surprised as I was!
Most fruits and vegetables have been selectively bred for many centuries
For thousands of years, humans have utilized selective and scientific plant breeding methods in order to grow the fruits and vegetables we know today. One thing I love doing is looking up the wild or original species of many of my favorite fruits and vegetables. They weren’t at all like we know them today. It is thanks to ever-changing scientific technology that we as humans have come to understand genetics and can utilize genetics in order to produce fruits and vegetables that have the best flavor, appearance, size, and many other characteristics we enjoy as consumers.
One of my favorite graphics from the Genetic Literacy Project gives us a great summary of some of the wild species of our favorite fruits and vegetables. Take a look, it’s amazing.
The practice of domesticating plants conducted by humans to produce plants that have more desirable traits than wild plants is estimated to date back 9,000 – 11,000 years. Many crops we know today are the result of domestication from 3,000 – 5,000 years ago. Today, all of our fruits and vegetables come from domesticated varieties that were domesticated from the centers of origin as seen in the image below. It is crazy to think of the many diverse crops we grow here in the North America today that didn’t originate here. They were brought here and domesticated here by human involvement. Gives a whole new perspective to the term “local food” doesn’t it?
With time, experiments began with scientific breeding and that science was greatly enhanced by the work of Gregor Mendel and his laws of inheritance in the mid 1800s. If you remember back to junior high science class and the endless punnett squares you did when you learned basic genetics, the punnett square is a visual representation of what Mendel found during his studies of genetics. Mendel’s work led to an increased interest and knowledge regarding genetics, not only in plants but also in humans as well.
What is conventional plant breeding?
It is simply the act of bringing together two specific plant parents (selected for certain characteristics or traits) to produce a new offspring. I think we can widely recognize this as we do it all the time in dogs. We see a female with good characteristics so we breed her to a male with a certain characteristic we like in hopes for the offspring to exhibit BOTH characteristics.
Much like in dogs or other animals, plants will show characteristics from their parent plants called traits. And much like in dogs or other animals, many of our favorite fruits and vegetables were bred from the same plant families. One of the largest plant families is the Mustard family. From wild mustard, through selective breeding scientists have created kale, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, and kohlrabi.
Most fruits and vegetables aren’t GMO
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. And GMOs or transgenics is in simple terms, a solution to a particular problem for a scientist or farmer. To create a transgenic seed, a beneficial trait is identified (much like in scientific breeding) and then adapted to a new plant. This technology is the same idea as selective breeding, however it is simply done in a different manner. In selective breeding, a desired gene is identified and then those two parent plants are bred, transferring many genes in hopes that the desired gene is displayed in the offspring. Often times during this breeding technique, the scientist has no idea what the outcome will be, only a hypothesis of what the outcome will be.
Transgenic technology is more precise than this, it identifies a desired gene, but only transfers that selected gene or a small number of genes. Hence the name, transgenic (trans = moving gene). The scientist knows exactly what the outcome will be because they are only selecting one trait and one gene they already know what its function is. I love this table from Dr. Folta which compares a variety of different things when it comes to scientific breedingmethods such as: how many genes are transferred, if we know what transferred genes do, and if we know where transferred genes are located.
There are four different traits commonly selected for use: disease resistance, drought tolerance, insect resistance, and herbicide tolerance. However, many other new technologies are coming on the scene. The idea of utilizing a trasngenic or GMO peanut that makes it allergy free, vitamin enriched foods for countries that are quite literally starving, and just recently a non-browning apple has been brought to market. I have a niece who suffers from a life threatening nut allergy and regularly struggles with not being able to eat the same foods her peers do. How amazing would it be if transgenic technology can change that for her?
What crops are transgenic or GMO?
One of the things I commonly see surrounding transgenic or GMO crops is the fact that many people believe that their produce aisle is full of transgenic foods. This is not true. In fact, nothing in the produce aisle is transgenic with the exception of papayas, some squash, and sweet corn. Fruits or vegetables that are commonly said to be transgenic are things like seedless watermelon, certain varieties of tomatoes, milk, and rice. I’ve also seen a pretty common myth that commercial wheat is transgenic or GMO, it is not.
Currently there are ten crops commercially available: corn (both field & sweet), soybeans, canola, alfalfa, cotton, squash, sugar beets, and papaya. Just recently, potatoes and non-browning apples have been added to this list.
So where are you most likely to find GMO foods in the grocery store?
In packaged foods. The majority of corn and soybeans grown in the United States are transgenic or GMO and these commodities are often processed to generate food ingredients like oils (corn, soybean, canola, & cottonseed), cornstarch, cornmeal, soy flour, soy protein, soy lecithin, sugars (from beets, not cane), and corn syrup. There have been many, many heated debates regarding labeling these products so consumers know when they are consuming them. One of the ways you can do this now is simply purchasing anything market “certified organic”.
Many in the science community have brought up the issue when it comes to GMO labeling, “how do we label a product differently that are chemically the same?” What do they mean by that? Well, it turns out that through extractions like those that produce oils or cornstarch, the resulting product is almost indistinguishable whether that plant contained transgenic or GMO traits. Chemically, it produces a product that is virtually the same as a non-transgenic variety. A great example of this is in sugar from sugar beets versus sugar from sugar cane.
How does GMO or transgenic technology help our farm?
On our farm we grow two GMO or transgenic crops: corn and soybeans. What transgenic or GMO technology has allowed us to improve on the farm is two fold.
Traditionally on the farm, corn was sprayed with a whole host of insecticides to keep corn silks and kernels safe from many varieties of moths and butterflies that have potential to devastate a crop. Thanks to transgenic traits like insect resistance, we no longer have to spray our corn with insecticides because the plant grows with this defense naturally. What this doesn’t mean is that scientists are pumping our corn full of insecticides. Instead, they found a naturally occurring bacterium called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) which has been widely used in organic farming for many years. What Bt does is when it is ingested by larvae of certain moths and butterflies binds with certain proteins in the gut of the larvae and eventually kills them. It is non-toxic to humans, mammals, and most other insects because we don’t contain that same protein. Scientists have been able to identify that gene which codes for this process to occur in plants and have inserted into the corn we grow on our farm.
The second trait that we utilize on our farm is herbicide resistance, this trait is found in both our corn and our soybeans. Weeds have always been a pressure farmers face as weeds compete with the crop for sunlight and nutrients. Traditionally, we rid ourselves of weeds in our crops by tillage. Tilling is an extremely effective method to remove weeds. A plow basically flips over the top layer of soil incorporating nearly all residue into the soil. However, tilling or plowing can lead to effects like: soil compaction, loss of left residue (or leftover pieces of last year’s crop left to break down), degradation of soil structure (which allows nutrients, water, and plant roots to move through it), potential for erosion, and disruption of soil organisms.
What herbicide resistant crops have allowed us to do is adapt a no-till system. A true no-till system avoids disturbing the soil with any kind of tool (plows, cultivators, and discs). In using no-till, you have effectively lost your method to control weeds by tilling them which in turn means that you must now use other methods to manage weeds. Here’s where herbicide traited crops come into play.
Much like the insect resistance, there are many myths surrounding this technology. Many believe that our corn or soybeans are injected with herbicides to make them resistant, this isn’t true. Herbicide traited crops contain a gene that enables them to degrade the active ingredient in certain herbicides, therefore rendering the plant harmless to these herbicides.
What is a more simple explanation for this in glyphosate resistant crops? There’s an enzyme in plants epsps (for short) which helps plants metabolize and produce amino acids. If the plant cannot produce amino acids, it will die. The glyphosate chemical binds with epsps to block production of amino acids and the plant dies. Essentially, this is how glyphosate works. Scientists found out, however, that bacteria performs a similar process to produce amino acids EXCEPT bacteria’s enzyme epsps will not bind with glyphosate. And in turn, they replaced the plant’s enzyme with the bacteria’s enzyme and ta-da you’ve created a plant that is now resistant to glyphosate.
Of course, none of this technology comes without limitations or drawbacks and utilizing new technology is important to produce more with less on the farm. One of those drawbacks is common weeds evolving to becoming herbicide tolerant as well. As farmers, we recognize this can be a huge problem if we use the technologies given to us irresponsibly. It is one of the reasons we maintain a diverse crop rotation to ensure that we are utilizing different chemistries and traits each year, and we aren’t just using the same products year after year.
These are just a few of the things I’ve come to learn about transgenics or GMOs and our food, as well as how many of my favorite foods came to be what I know today! As people first, farmers are just as concerned about the food we eat and produce as you are. It is something we take in to consideration with each choice we make on the farm.
In addition, we want consumers to know what we are doing and why we make the choices we do on our farm. We don’t want our methods to be somehow secretive. So I hope this post has taken some of the unknown out of transgenic or GMO technology as well as shed light on the history of our foods. And I hope you walk away from this read learning something new about the food we all know and love so much!
Folta, K. (2012). More Frankenfood Paradox.
Folta, K. (2014). Biotechnology Literacy Day.
Genetic Literacy Project. (2015). How your food would look if not genetically modified over millennia.
GMO Answers. (2015). How are GMO Plants Produced?
Hart, H. (2014). What Foods Are GMO?
Kennedy, C. (2015). Sugar from GM Sugar Beets is Not the Scariest Thing on Halloween.
Plummer, B. (2015). Genetically modified food, explained.
Rohrich, J. (2013). What Types of Equipment Do Farmers Use to Plant?
Rohrich, J. (2014). Crop Rotation on Our Farm.
Rohrich, J. (2015). Why Do Farmers Apply Pesticides?
Shelton, A. & Shaw, D. (2014). Green Genes: Sustainability Advantages of Herbicide Tolerant and Insect Resistant Crops.
Wikipedia. (2011). History of Plant Breeding.