GE/GMO: What’s The Difference?

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And Why A Safe Seed Pledge?

I have written a fair amount about GMO crops and the problems associated with them. As it turns out, I really intended to be discussing GE crops. Who knew? Obviously not me.

Why the confusion? The terms GMO and GE are often used interchangeably in media of many kinds. However, they are not in fact the same thing. Ironically, that should have been obvious: GMO crops are actually as old as hybridizing, because hand pollinating to get a new rose or tomato is exactly that.

The Real Scoop On GMO

Genetically modified organisms are what we also call “cultivars” of everything from apples to zucchini (or azaleas to zygocactus). When breeders purposely cross different cultivars of spinach or petunias or whatever, the offspring will be genetically modified. Bees and other pollinators do this randomly, but when humans take an active interest in plant sex, it is usually in an attempt to improve the crop in specific ways (to get larger flowers, or tomatoes with more antioxidants, for instance).

Sometimes hybridizers create plants that can’t be replicated except by repeating the cross, such as seedless watermelon. Sometimes they even cross similar vegetables from the same family, such as kale and cabbage, or kale and broccoli, or plums and apricots (which results in pluots).

So What’s So Bad About GMO?

Well, nothing, really, which is what makes that knee-jerk assumption so embarrassing once we actually stop and think about the terms for a moment. What many people (including me) are really concerned about, and rightfully so, is GE or genetic engineering. GE refers to gene splicing, the transfer of genetic material from a source that is sexually incompatible with the recipient gene and could not occur in nature.

Pesticide-resistant crops such as Roundup-Ready alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, or soybeans are genetically engineered so that famers can spray crops in the field and only kill weeds (at least in theory). Bt-corn is genetically engineered to include a strain of Bacillus thuringiensis, normally a soil-dwelling bacterium commonly used as a pesticide.

Keep GE Crops Out Of My Garden

Until recently, all GE crops were grown by farmers, which was bad enough. This year, a number of companies are offering GE corn packaged for the home gardener. The “insect-protected” and Roundup Ready corn seeds available by the packet in retail stores are called The Performance Series and the Obsession Series. Obsession is a good name, because it explains why these crops continue to be developed and sold, despite increasing clear signs indicating that GE crops are not what they are touted to be.

For one thing, dozens of weed families are now resistant to Roundup, so Monsanto is requesting FDA permission to register 2-4-D corn. An ingredient in the infamous Agent Orange, 2-4-D exposure may damage the liver, kidneys, white blood cells, sperm, and the neurological system. Children and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk, along with people who are frequently exposed to 2-4-D in the work environment. Want some in your vegetables? I don’t think so.

Buy From Companies That Take The Safe Seed Pledge

When the first genetically engineered plants and seed crops were brought to the market in the 1990s, many growers and seed companies had serious reservations about their safety. In response, a list of horticultural businesses which would not buy or sell genetically engineered seeds was created. Called the Safe Seed Pledge, this list is maintained by the Council for Responsible Genetics. The CRG is a non-profit dedicated to “educating the public about and advocating for socially responsible use of new genetic technologies.”

If you want to support these companies, here’s a link of pledge-takers, state by state:

For more ideas on how to avoid supporting Monsanto, check out this inventive website:

Learn more by reading  Seed Buying 101: A Seed Gardener’s Glossary

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2 Responses to GE/GMO: What’s The Difference?

  1. curious says:

    Because I too, would like to be very careful where my seed dollars are spent I am now a very confused gardener/farmer at times. My old beloved ‘go to’ seed company Territorial does business with Seminis (I have a letter from them listing which seed they buy from them). Seminis is owned by Monsanto. I just don’t understand how one can take a ‘safe seed pledge’ and still do business with companies that have anything to do with those monsters? Do you have any light to shed on this?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      This issue has certainly caused a lot of heartache in the horticulture industry. I know that Log House Plants has chosen not to buy seed from Seminis since the Monsanto buyout, even though that meant dropping some very popular and much loved vegetables. Instead, they have replaced the old favorites with healthy, delicious new varieties developed by enterprising hybridizers who use old fashioned crossing rather than genetic engineering, as well as lovely heritage varieties from all over the world. While so far there is no indication that Monsanto plans to develop GE versions of everything in the Seminis catalog, two strains of GE corn (the Performance Series and the Obsession Series) have been introduced for home gardeners this year. Clearly, each business will need to decide for themselves how to handle seed sourcing (and in fact most of the varieties Seminis sells are NOT GE, at least so far), just as each gardener will. I suspect that all of us will refine our positions over time, especially as new research shows everyone what issues come with GE crops. I hope this helps a bit, at least.


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