I love seed catalogs. Reading them is an easy, simple way to learn about growing plants and new plant introductions. I grow many of my edibles from seed — it’s fun, economical, and rewarding. But I am not willing to pay extra for the “non-GMO” or “GMO-free” claim I see on almost every catalog now. Even more importantly, seed catalogs should make it clear that they are offering non-GE seed, which isn’t even available to the home gardeners anyway so they are not really “offering” any more than the next seed catalog.
GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organism.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a GMO is “an organism produced through genetic modification.” Genetically modified organisms can occur naturally or can be created by people through traditional breeding methods. For example, some plants will produce variegated leaves on their own, a desirable characteristic. Or some people will breed a plant in their backyard for a particular trait. The Mortgage Lifter tomato, an heirloom, was created when a person selected plants that had large tomatoes and bred them together to make even larger tomatoes. The resulting plant produced such large and tasty tomatoes, the grower was able to sell the seedlings and pay off his mortgage.
Many of the “new” plants for the year are bred by companies for particular characteristics. For example, most of the new flowering annuals are bred for particular flower colors. The newest petunia flower color was created by modifying genetics from parent petunias to create a hybrid that produced a particular new shade of pink.
GE stands for “Genetically Engineered,” i.e., an organism that was produced through genetic engineering. According to the USDA, genetic engineering is the “manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating, or re-arranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA.” New plants are produced by combining the DNA of a plant with something else that is not related and/or is not sexually compatible. These combinations would not normally occur in nature. For example, corn seed modified with a soil bacterium to protect the corn from corn borers. This type of corn seed can only occur by scientists, in labs, with special equipment. In our country, this is done with agricultural crops, not the seed or plants that home gardeners use.
Technically, the USDA definition of GMO is broad enough to include GE. What many people object to are GE crops; they are concerned about safety and long term effects. There are no safety concerns with genetically modified organisms so it is unfortunate that many seed catalogs use the term GMO when they mean to say GE. Seed catalogs should be clear: they are not selling GE seeds; they are selling GMO seeds if they are selling hybrids, including open pollinated hybrids. In many of my catalogs, one page states “GMO free” and “we never sell genetically modified seed” yet on subsequent pages say “a decade in the breeding,” or “hybrid”, or “the result of a lifetime of fine breeding.” Breeding means you are working with genetics to create a desirable trait so you have genetically modified the organism but this does not mean you have created something dangerous and unsafe. It means they used traditional, horticultural practices, not recombinant DNA of a plant and a non-plant.