Michael Kilpatrick thought he had found a neat new plant to enhance the gardens of his environmentally conscious customers.
But then the co-owner of Kilpatrick Family Farms in Granville read a notation beneath the description of the “mosquito shoo” geranium, a plant that gives off a citronella smell. It indicated the plant was genetically engineered.
Kilpatrick threw the catalog away and won’t be ordering from that seed company anymore. It wasn’t about punishing the company, Kilpatrick said. It was about caution.
“A (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Certified Organic grower has to be very vigilant,” he said. “The rules prohibit any (genetically modified organism) crops at all.”
Kilpatrick said it was the first time he had seen a genetically modified organism (GMO) in one of the consumer seed catalogs he receives each year. It’s a sign, he said, the controversy over genetically engineered plants is going to grow.
Advocates say genetically modified plants, including corn, soy, cotton and sugar beets, are helping farmers get the most out of their land, and there is hope genetically modified alfalfa, relatively new to the GMO scene, will offer similar benefits.
But Kilpatrick and those who share his skepticism believe not enough independent research has been done on genetically modified organisms, and until that research is done, consumers have a right to know whether their food — or their ornamental plants, for that matter — were created through genetic engineering.
“The research that has been done has been done by ... companies that are selling GMO seeds,” Kilpatrick said. “And the amount they are pushing into the government for lobbying is billions of dollars.”
Genetic engineering goes beyond breeding plants to increase the chances of certain traits showing up in subsequent generations, which has been done throughout agricultural history.
Genetic engineering entails splicing new genes into the DNA of seeds to create traits that would likely be impossible through natural processes. The technology has been pioneered by companies like Monsanto, which also makes herbicides like Roundup.
The lobbying Kilpatrick referenced has targeted efforts like “Prop 37,” a proposal in California that would have mandated labeling products that contain genetically engineered ingredients. The proposal was narrowly defeated in November in a statewide referendum.
Last week, Whole Foods became the first national grocery chain to announce it will, by 2018, require labels revealing to consumers the presence of genetically modified ingredients. Whole Foods is an organic grocer, but the company also sells a range of nonorganic products, according to an Associated Press story about the announcement.
Supporters of GMO labeling feel it’s unfair to conceal the contents of consumer products from the people who use them, Kilpatrick said.
“If you want to eat GMOs, go for it,” he said. “We just want them labeled. We just want to know what we’re eating. The government that’s condoning these is the same one that gave us DDT and let Agent Orange through and 50 years ago said cigarettes were great. So, we’re saying let’s do some research and science on this.”
Kilpatrick’s concerns range from personal to environmental health.
He worries proliferation of genetically engineered plants will result in new kinds of weeds resistant to herbicides, natural and synthetic, and usher in a new era of invasive species. That has already happened in some areas of the country, where farmers are finding weeds that need to be physically destroyed to be controlled.
Kilpatrick also pointed to a 2012 study by Environmental Sciences Europe of genetically modified corn created by Monsanto to be resistant to that firm’s Roundup herbicide. The study showed the resistance has increased the use of the weed-killer, as farmers learn they can spray crops more liberally without damaging the corn itself.
Proponents of genetic engineering counter that farmers are using less of other, more harmful herbicides as a result of the new plants.
Some strains of corn are being created that have a gene inserted in their DNA to allow the plants to produce bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a bacteria that sickens and kills insects.
“We spray a natural form of that on our cauliflower and other vegetables to kill caterpillars,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s totally safe, but the problem is they said, ‘We can engineer this into the actual plant, so now the plant is producing this bacteria.’”
Tom Borden, owner of a dairy farm and apple orchard in Easton, sees genetically modified corn as beneficial. He is also president of the Washington County Farm Bureau, and he agrees some care should be taken as plants — and even animals — are subjected to genetic engineering.
Still, herbicide-resistant corn has helped his farm, he said.
“I think there’s some real value to (GMO crops),” Borden said.
He began using genetically engineered corn about a decade ago.
“It’s clear to me that we’ve gotten better yields with some of these corns because we get better weed control,” he said. “I hope we don’t let fear chase away all the technology. I don’t think we should turn things away just because we’re not sure yet. We could see some huge benefits, especially in disease or insect resistance.”
Building better crops?
A similar message was shared by Margaret Smith, a Cornell University professor who specializes in genetically engineered field crops.
“Good things can be done with (genetic engineering),” Smith said. “The products we have right now are mostly things that are more convenient or easier to manage for growers.
“There’s not a lot out there yet that is particularly tailored to consumers. But I think the next generation of products coming along are focusing on things like healthier oils or a better balance of nutrients in the crop. So, there’s some things that begin to try to get at what consumers might need.”
A new strain of genetically modified corn, for instance, has proven to be more resistant to drought, Smith said.
“Well, after last season in the corn belt, that looks really attractive to a lot of people,” Smith said.
As for the supposedly genetically engineered geranium Kilpatrick found in the seed catalog, gardeners planning spring projects will find little help in avoiding GMO plants. Because no labels are required, the only way to be sure seeds are not genetically engineered is to seek out USDA Certified Organic products, Kilpatrick said.
The seed company that advertised the geranium, Burgess Seed & Plant Co., was still advertising the plant for sale on its website last week, though the notation about genetic engineering was absent. Kilpatrick surmised that was an indication of backlash against the company or, possibly, that the plant had been mislabeled as genetically altered.
The seed company did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but Smith, from Cornell University, researched the plant and thinks Kilpatrick’s latter scenario is more likely.
“As far as I can tell, the mosquito killing geranium is absolutely not genetically engineered,” she said. “Although I see those words on some websites, there is no approval for any genetically engineered geranium to be sold in the U.S., and in fact, there’s not even been much research on it other than on traits that are affecting things like flower color.
“There’s one website I found that says it was genetically engineered by some Dutch scientist. But it would not be allowed to be sold in the U.S. without approval, so I think that’s not true.”
Either way, Kilpatrick said the incident illustrated the challenges brought by a lack of any standard for labeling genetically engineered plants.
Frank Troelstra, owner of Garden Time Inc., said he thinks the average customer isn’t concerned about genetic engineering yet. And like Borden, he is hopeful technology can offer new options to gardeners.
“In a non-food-related sense, I feel happy about the benefits that these things are bringing,” said Troelstra, whose company has four regional locations, including one on Quaker Road in Queensbury.
He said he doesn’t think genetically modified organisms have become common in garden centers like his, but genetically modified grass seed that requires less watering — or less chemical treatment — is one of the products he thinks consumers could benefit from.
“I’ve had people ask, but they’re so few and far between,” he said, referring to genetically modified plants. “I do carry organic seeds.”
Troelstra said he would likely change his buying strategy if labeling of GMOs became more widespread and consumers reacted with concern.
“If they were to label them, and there was enough resistance from customers on that, I would definitely consider that. My buying habits would swing to customer demand.”
Lots of GMOs
Bill Hamilton, field advisor for Washington County Farm Bureau, said he has no data on how many area farmers are growing genetically modified crops, but he believes the practice is common.
The Farm Bureau supports voluntary labeling of products that contain genetically modified ingredients. He pointed out most of the organization’s policies are contingent on voluntary compliance.
“If I had to speculate, I guess (farmers) are thinking about costs and about how you would truly enforce a policy like that,” Hamilton said.
Similar concerns were raised in California as the Prop 37 debate raged, with opponents saying the label would become meaningless because the proposition, as written, would require a GMO label on any product containing corn syrup, or soy proteins because it would be difficult to say, for sure, that the corn used was not genetically modified.
Smith, from Cornell University, confirmed most of the corn and soy grown in the U.S. today is genetically modified.
But the failure of Prop 37 should not deter consumers from exercising their right to know what they’re eating, said Alice Varon, executive director of Certified Naturally Grown. That organization was founded by farmers 10 years ago as an alternative to the USDA Certified Organic movement, although its standards are similar to Certified Organic standards, Varon said.
“Definitely, there should be better labeling,” she said. “I do think we should be informed as consumers, and I believe it is very hard to be informed when you’re not provided with the information.”
Varon cited studies that question the safety of GMOs, including one released in January by the European Food Safety Authority. It showed a virus used to modify the genes in some plants remained in the modified organisms.
The study claims the pathogen could sicken people, though it also calls for more study and a new approval process for genetically modified organisms intended for consumption.
“We have a right to know, as consumers, what we’re eating, especially when there’s reason to believe that they may be harmful,” Varon said. “And the burden of proof really should be on these companies making these products to show they’re safe when they’re radically different from the foods we’ve been eating forever.”