It is simply impossible for a home gardener to buy GMO seeds. None of the seeds or plants available at retail, either mail-order or on seed racks, is genetically modified. No vegetables, no ornamentals. None.
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are inevitably a hot topic with gardeners, arousing strong feelings both for and against the technology. And, with seed catalogue season fast approaching, we likely will hear questions about GMO seeds. Social media, especially, is rife with posts and memes that often spread fear and disinformation about seed suppliers and seed varieties being “owned by Monsanto” or otherwise tainted by technologies perceived to be dangerous. Too often the debate conflates GMOs with “science” and ignores concerns about the societal and ecological impacts of genetic technologies. But that’s a topic for a much longer (and more difficult) article.
When wearing our professional Master Gardener hats we need to correct errors and misconceptions, especially with beginner gardeners, whose fear of GMOs may become a barrier to the enjoyment of seed starting. We need to make sure that facts don’t get trampled by emotion. Here is the key fact to emphasize: it is simply impossible for a home gardener to buy GMO seeds. None of the seeds or plants available at retail, either mail-order or on seed racks, is genetically modified. No vegetables, no ornamentals. None.
When seed retailers describe their products as “GMO-free” or “non-GMO” they increase the widespread misconception that the contents of a seed packet could actually be GMO. They can’t. Retailers who use this kind of marketing language, whether we consider it unethical or ignorant, are a big part of the problem.
Even if a gardener is full-out determined to grow any of the genetically modified seeds currently legal in Canada—corn, canola, soybean, white sugar beet, and alfalfa—she would need to enter into a contract with a global agribusiness giant, probably Bayer (which purchased Monsanto in 2018).
She would probably want to be incorporated and have her lawyer review the contract. She’d also need a few hundred acres of land to justify the minimum orders. These seeds are intended for industrial-scale growers, not market gardeners.
Perhaps our strong-willed gardener knows a farmer who uses GMO seeds. It would be illegal for the farmer to give, trade, or sell the seeds to her, or anyone. Because GM varieties are patented—they are the property of Bayer or its subsidiaries—growers’ contracts severely restrict how they can be used. And the company’s lawyers vigorously defend these patents. The case of Percy Schmeiser is an eye-opener on this topic.
There is likely a teachable moment here. We might need to explain the distinction between “genetically modified” and “hybrid”. GM seeds, in general, are engineered to make the resulting plants resistant to a certain virus, pest, or herbicide, usually glyphosate. Hybrids, on the other hand, are created when plant breeders deliberately cross two or more varieties, grow out the resulting plants, and continue selecting and breeding for desired traits, such as flower colour, plant height/shape, fruit size/shape, maturation time/speed etc.
Returning to the issue of GMOs, let’s try to respect the feelings but dispel the fear. Since it is virtually impossible for a gardener or small-scale grower to acquire genetically modified seeds, we can all enjoy our winter evenings curled up with seed catalogues in pleasant anticipation and a clear conscience. The seeds are alright.
by Bev Wagar – Halton Master Gardener