The extent to which plant sex surrounds us is absolutely mind-boggling. In the honest words of Tompkins and Bird (The Secret Life of Plants), “each corn kernel on a cob in summer is a separate ovule, that each strand on the pubic corn silk tufted around the cob is an individual vagina ready to suck up the pollen sperm brought to it on the wind, that it may wriggle the entire length of the stylized vagina to impregnate each kernel on the cob, that every single seed produced on the plant is a result of a separate impregnation.”
In large part, a farmer’s job is to facilitate plant sex. Just like human reproduction results in babies, plant reproduction results in spores or seeds. To understand GM seeds, it’s important to have an idea of how farmers encourage natural seed production.
For example, to produce lettuce seeds from a Green Butterhead (my favorite!), the farmer places a seed (or a seedling, which is a tiny plant that was nurtured in a little container) in the ground. It grows lettuce leaves, and after a month, an enormous lettuce head. If the farmer wants to sell the lettuce, she uses a knife to cut the head apart from the thick stem, which she leaves to compost in the ground. But if the farmer wants to collect seeds from the lettuce instead of selling the head, she leaves the plant in the ground… until it miraculously sprouts a stalk from its center.
The first time I saw a lettuce “going to flower” (or “going to seed,” or “bolting”) I thought I was looking a at some bizarre tree that had planted itself in the middle of our lettuce rows… lettuce plants can grow as high as my hip, and as many as 30 flowers can bloom from the end of the stalk. Each flower pollinates itself and produces seeds. The farmer collects seeds from each flower and can save them for years.
A farmer can breed seeds to bring out certain traits; for example, a pepper that is bright red and sweet, or bigger, tougher broccoli. There are two ways of breeding seeds. One is through open pollination, wherein plants reproduce naturally, without human intervention. The farmer collects and uses only the seeds from the best plants, therefore selecting the strongest traits over years of planting. The species farmers breed through open pollination for years are called heirlooms.
Another way to breed seeds is through hybridization. This method is much faster and more precise than open pollination. To create a hybrid, the farmer hand pollinates plants to cross two very different plants of the same species. For example, when a farmer crosses a short/fat ear of corn with a long/thin ear, the result is long/fat corn– which means more food. Most of the food you buy in grocery stores is hybrid; farmers have bred hybrid tomatoes to withstand traveling miles across the country without bursting, lettuce that can withstand the cold of the winter, enormous carrots, etc.
So: why don’t we hybridize everything, if we can just breed plants to be how we want them and get instantaneous results?
First off, heirlooms often taste better. And by better, I mean if you have tasted an heirloom tomato, you simply cannot tolerate a hybrid tomato. Secondly, while heirloom plants reproduce seeds that resemble their parents, hybrid plants do not. Either their seeds are sterile and can’t reproduce, or their seeds produce plants that won’t all be alike. Most farmers, then, have to rely on seed companies to grow hybrid plants. Each year, farmers buy millions of hybrid seeds from seed companies. That reliance has allowed monopolies to form in the seed business, particularly when it comes to industrial, large scale farming, where hybrid seeds produce an enormous amount of food at very low cost.
Farmers often choose to buy seeds from seed companies each year rather than expend the valuable time and energy to collect seeds from their own plants and either hybridize them or plant heirlooms. That is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, many seed companies are small, family run businesses. However, farmers’ reliance on seed companies sets the stage for GMOs and the slew of controversies that come with them. Remember how hybridization involves crossing traits from plants within the same species? Genetic modification crosses traits of organisms from different species. Which produces some fantastic, and also terrifying, results, both biologically and economically.
To be continued in the next installment of this GMO series… feel free to ask questions and comment! Enormous thanks and respect to Molly Moses, who collaborated with me on this post, and whose drawings are sincerely wonderful. See her blog at http://iflostpleasereturn.blogspot.com/.
Some sources for this series:
Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth