The Advantages of Heirloom Seeds
The Advantages of Heirloom Seeds
Before diving into the specific benefits of heirloom seeds and plants, it is important to understand a few relevant definitions.
Genetic Modification (a.k.a. genetic engineering, transgenics) - "a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of organisms such as animals, plants, or bacteria." (Human Genome Project)
Genetically Modified Seeds - "seeds that have been altered through genetic engineering techniques." (GLIN.gov)
Heirloom - open-pollinated plants that successfully reproduce themselves through seed. The resulting offspring are basically the same as the parent plant(s); in other words, they grow true to type. (Louisiana NRCS)
Hybrid - a cross between two varieties of plants which may or may not reproduce by seed. Their seeds may be sterile, and if they are not, their offspring will not be the same as the parent plant(s). They will simply revert back to one of the original pure varieties. (Louisiana NRCS)
Recombinant DNA Technology - "combining genes from different organisms." (Human Genome Project)
Benefits of Heirloom Seeds
There is a myriad of benefits that flow from planting traditional heirloom seeds as opposed to modified or hybrid varieties. Just a few of these benefits follow.
1. Renewability. The first and most obvious benefit is the ability to preserve the seeds from a crop you like and plant them again next year. They will not be precisely like what you planted last year (this can be better achieved through vegetative propagation), but they will have most of the same traits. In this way you can become self-reliant with your own crops. There is no need to run down to the local co-op to buy new bags of seeds when you have collected your own.
2. Heritage. You are preserving and caring for history itself. Generations of growers repeated the process described above for millennia in order to produce the very seeds you hold in your hand. Growing your own heirlooms allows you to become part of this legacy, collecting and nurturing varieties that best suit your area and climate.
3. Flavor. Although some may dispute this, heirloom varieties of vegetables and herbs tend to have a better, more unique taste and quality than their GMO and hybrid cousins. As long as a species is kept heirloom, its genetic distinctiveness and therefore exclusive flavors and traits are preserved. However, once a species is tinkered with genetically, whether through hybridizing or genetically modifying, some of these great characteristics can be lost forever.
4. Choice. Instead of allowing a huge industrial agriculture company to choose which traits and values your crops should ideally have, you get to pick out next year's crop yourself. Does one tomato plant have particularly juicy fruit and is especially hardy - you can choose to save that strong strain for future use. On the other hand, genetic modification implies no control for the grower. You simply must grow what the scientists choose to create in the lab.
(Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).
The Dangers of Genetic Modification
Crops are often genetically engineered to become herbicide resistant, resistant to a certain pest, to ripen at unnatural times, to boost nutritional value, or for a variety of other purposes. While these new characteristics may be handy, we could be paying the price for this all-too-convenient modification.
Risks to Human Health
In order to produce the desired qualities in a crop, the species' DNA is oftentimes combines with that of another species (sometimes from a different kingdom altogether) - e.g. bacteria or fish DNA combined with plant DNA. One potential hazard of this is a posed allergy risk. For example, if someone has an allergic reaction to fish and that fish DNA is incorporated into a vegetable, they could potentially have an allergic reaction to that food without any precautions. There are filters in the bureaucratic system to help prevent this from happening, but it is still a risk.
While there is some testing, there seems to be little regard in large corporations and institutions for these risks, however, and genetic modification is consistently touted as the next best revolution in agriculture.
A study by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in 2007 states, "The introduction of foreign genes makes some people very uncomfortable, and a small group of activists have grave concerns about the technology. Attempts by activists to build concern in the general public have garnered little attention; however, the producers of GM organisms have responded to their concerns and established extensive testing programs to be applied to each candidate organism that is produced." [Italics added.]
(Source: University of Florida IFAS Extension)
Another factor to consider is that food from genetically modified organisms have not been on the market for that long (almost 20 years); therefore, the long-range effects of consuming this food are essentially unknown. Thus, in effect, we are the guinea pigs in one big nationwide - worldwide - experiment.
Risks to Heirloom Crops
The Human Genome Project admits that one danger of genetic modification is cross-pollination between GMO crops and other plants, which will reduce biodiversity.
Also, cross-pollination between heirloom crops and GMO crops poses a threat to small, organic farming in general. If a crop, such as soybeans, is almost 100% genetically modified and is cross-pollinating with the diminishing heirloom population, natural heirloom varieties could completely vanish not only from the large agricultural scheme but also from the small-time gardening scheme. All growers, hobby-gardener and hundred acre gardener alike, could be dependent on huge corporations for getting their seeds (since GMO crops are sterile). Thus, an ultimate monopoly on agricultural life by industrial giants is not unimaginable.
Risks to Honeybee Population
Huge genetically modified monocultures have been blamed for the mysterious disappearance of honeybees across the U.S. and the world, called colony collapse disorder (CCD). In this beekeeping disaster, nearly an entire hive will disappear without a trace.
Although the USDA refutes a connection between genetic modification and CCD based on scientific testing, the issue is still unclear. Such institutions as the University of Florida and University of Illinois recognize the possibility that GM crops and the fact that their seeds are sometimes immersed in pesticides play a part in honeybee disappearances.
Affront to Ethics
While the practical risks of genetic modification have been discussed, ethics plays an equally important role in the minds and hearts of the people. While there have been objections to just about every technological development in history, is genetic modification different? Is the next greatest innovation in modern agriculture an angel or a demon?
Crossing the genes of two completely different species is no doubt an adulteration of the system of nature. Nowhere in nature does the DNA of a fish and a strawberry plant cross. Human beings have "edited" a genetic code that has been working and adapting for millions of years. It is certainly in arrogance that we believe we can genuinely improve a living organism designed by the Creator by tweaking its inherent DNA, yet it is increasingly common. Also unjust is placing a trademark on life, as if we could ever truly own it. Such a scheme almost demands consequences.
However, that is only one side of the coin. While the concept of genetic modification is repulsive to many traditional growers, it does have the potential to benefit people (this is discussed more below). This is the argument of the proponents of genetic modification, i.e. that the benefits far outweigh any little harm this scientific development could cause. Increased crop yields could aide in the fight against world hunger, for example. Thus, to completely eliminate genetic modification could harm humankind more than help us. At the same time, feeding the world through organic agriculture in a more natural manner is entirely feasible as well.
As far as ethics goes, the subjective stance is different from person to person, but, of course, there are more than just ethics at stake here.
Range of Genetic Modification
The three most commonly genetically engineered crops are soybeans, cotton, and corn (in that order). Below is a graph from the USDA detailing the growth in genetic modification of these crops since 1996.
As you can see, almost all soybean crops in the U.S. today are genetically modified, and cotton and corn are catching up.
Notes: Bt = Bacillus thuringiensis (a type of bacteria combined with the crop to make it produce a pest-repellent toxin as it grows). You can learn more about this from this UT Extension page.
HT = herbicide tolerant
See this page by the Union of Concerned Scientists for a detailed list of the genetically modified foods on store shelves.
Potential Benefits of Genetic Modification
Additional nutritional qualities and higher yield can particularly aide malnourished children and adults in developing nations. The University of Florida put forth the example of "Golden Rice," which is richer in Vitamin A and iron. This nutritional benefit could help fight off anemia and blindness in malnourished children.
Other more utilitarian positives include less need for external pesticides (if the pesticides have already been incorporated into the plant's DNA) and more convenient sizing, harvesting, storing, and transporting.
What does this mean for me?
Genetically modified crops and therefore foods are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. and abroad, and it is important that we are aware of its presence, its possible implications, and our position toward it. Whether one stands for or against genetically engineering plants, it is critical that one understand the process.
If you wish to avoid genetically modified crops, the first step you can take is growing your own heirloom plants and saving your own seeds each year. In this way you can both support traditional growing methods and put traditional, all-natural foods on your plate (the grocery store contains plenty of genetically modified foods). You will also help to preserve the long-lasting heritage of heirloom crops in a world of modified crops.
In addition, this page by the Center for Food Safety could be very helpful in learning to avoid genetically modified foods in the grocery store.