Spring is just around the corner, which means ordering seeds and plants tops most gardeners to-do lists at the moment. I grow heirlooms and hybrids, so the pile of catalogs on our coffee table is out of control. Normally, I find ordering seeds a relaxing experience, but this year I’ve been mulling over a couple of issues that have made placing orders more stressful.
The biggest one concerns GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the need to avoid buying GMO seeds for our gardens, and you’ve probably seen at least some of the various lists going around touting ”safe” seeds. Many people, including me, don’t want to buy seed that has been genetically modified. So I was happy to find out from my friend Jeff Gillman, a hort professor at the University of Minnesota, that GMO seed is not yet available to home gardeners.
Farmers have long been able to buy GMO seed, particularly for corn and soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets. But, at least for now, that seed isn’t available to the general public so we can’t unwittingly buy them off the shelf or online—unless we pretend to be farmers for some weird reason. So where does the confusion come in? Well, maybe because you can mistakenly buy seeds from Voldemort, I mean Monsanto. And where there is Monsanto, we assume rightly or wrongly, there are GMOs.
How could you mistakenly buy from Monsanto? Well, as you may already know, the company has purchased many independent seed companies in the U.S. and abroad over the years. The biggest coup was in 2005 when Monsanto acquired Seminis, Inc., estimated to control more than 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and around 20 percent of the world market.
While Seminis’ domination of the market has largely hinged on selling to big, industrial growers supplying grocery stores, the company’s seeds were and continue to be available to smaller farmers (including organic), as well as home growers. Territorial Seed, Fedco, Stokes, Johnny’s and many other well-respected companies have long sold Seminis seeds, which have included both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties.
Following the acquisition, several sellers have phased out, or are in the process of phasing out, Monsanto-Seminis varieties. Others have stopped working with Seminis all together. This was certainly a tough financial decision for all of these sellers because Seminis seeds no doubt made up a good deal of their sales. I really can’t say how much their decisions were influence by consumer backlash, but I do know that informed consumers have been very vocal regarding their concerns about this complicated issue.
So how do you know whom to buy from? That’s a good question. If you don’t want to buy from any seed seller with ties to Monsanto, you can deal exclusively with heirloom seed companies, such as Baker Creek and Seed Saver’s Exchange. But if you want a wider selection that includes hybrids, you’ll need to ask each seller directly whether they have a relationship with Monsanto/Seminis before making a purchase.
If you’re okay with buying from a seller that carries Seminis seed that is clearly labeled as such, go that route. As I said, GMO seed is not yet on the market. So saying no to Seminis seed is really about saying no to Monsanto and what Monsanto stands for rather than avoiding GMOs. After all, there is nothing inherently wrong with the seed coming out of Seminis. In fact, over the years, the company has been known for offering many beloved open-pollinated seeds, as well as popular F1 hybrids that were either bred in-house or in partnership with universities and companies such as DuPont.
Of course this leads us into yet another confusing topic, the difference between GMOs and hybrids. Simply put, hybrids and GMOs are not the same thing. Hybrids are created when breeders cross-pollinate two or more plants of the same genus, species or variety to create a new plant with benefits like improved disease resistance or the ability to produce higher yields. GMOs, on the other hand, contain one or more genes from species that are completely different and created using techniques such as gene cloning.
Is it harmful to eat GMO foods? You read all the time that concern over genetically modified foods is overblown. I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard GMO proponents natter on about how organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association say that no ill health effects have been documented so far. I don’t find that comforting. And I don’t want to give any money to Monsanto if I can help it, either. That makes seed shopping trickier, but that’s okay.