Would you eat a GMO heirloom tomato?

Brandywine tomatoes are practically the poster child for organic, heirloom produce. Knobbly, warty, and deeply flavored, they’re a far cry from perfectly round red tomatoes. At $3/lb at the farmers’ market, Brandywines are also pretty pricy.

Want to know why you have to pay so much? Brandywines are prone to nematodes, microscopic worms that destroy tomatoes from the roots up. Farmers lose a lot more of their Brandywines to disease than more modern, disease-resistant hybrids. And because they harvest less, more land and water go into producing each pound of these heirloom tomatoes. In using more natural resources than hybrids, these organic, heirloom tomatoes might actually have a larger footprint than their conventional or hybrid counterparts.

Here’s the thing: with our existing technology, we could introduce better disease resistance simply by moving a disease resistant gene from a different type of tomato into the Brandywine, in basically an accelerated version of what plant breeders have been doing for centuries. No interspecies genes, no genes from viruses or bacteria, nothing that we don’t already eat whenever we eat a non-heirloom tomato. A GMO Brandywine could use water and space more effectively and require fewer or no pesticides.

Would you eat this hypothetical GMO heirloom tomato? What if it could be shown to be lower impact than its unmodified cultivar? What if it were clearly labeled?

…and what if you didn’t instinctively flinch at the idea of GMO and everything it stood for?

I’m currently reading Josh Schonwald’s The Taste of Tomorrow, which has a provocative chapter questioning whether the schism between organic and GMO is more ideological than rational. I’m discovering that my problem with GMO is not about the actual science at all: it’s about Monsanto’s business practices, lobbying, and seed patenting. No, I don’t think making farmers dependent on a corporation is a good idea. Yes, I think the Diamond v. Chakrabarty decision that ruled that genes could be patented was a disaster.

But as far as actual genetic modification goes, I’m neutral. It’s a different, and potentially complementary, approach to solving the same problems organic farmers face: disease prevention, yield, nutrition. I’m intrigued by Vitamin A fortified golden rice that could help prevent blindness in some of the poorest areas on the planet. In China, a form of cotton has been genetically modified to contain bacteria that acts as a natural pesticide. It’s helped to reduce pesticide use by 80%. That’s a lot of pesticides that didn’t go into our ground, air, and water. In Hawaii, after ringspot virus devastated papaya trees, scientist Dennis Gonsalves developed a disease resistant GMO papaya variety, released the seeds to farmers for free, and pretty much single-handedly saved the Hawaiian papaya industry and the livelihoods of many small farmers.

Of course there are concerns with GMOs.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned about long term effects on human and planetary health, the development of resistance to GMO, monocropping. Like you, I’m upset about the corporatization of food and Monsanto’s monopolistic policies. Although GMO produce goes through rigorous testing, we don’t always know what to test for, and it’s possible, even likely, that there will be results we could not have predicted. Increased production, for example, often triggers an increase in population/consumption (why hello, industrial animal farming), and we’re still biological creatures, after all. Increasing efficiency while decreasing consumption is the hardest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species.

But nor is organic always synonymous with sustainability. Organic tomatoes imported from Mexico are sucking local water tables dry. The organic strawberries at the farmers’ market are still spayed with pesticides that are not necessarily less toxic than synthetic counterparts. We usually think of biodegrading as a good process, but some organic pesticides degrade into toxic chemicals. Is a water-hungry, disease-prone organic plant really ‘greener’ than a GMO with higher yields that requires fewer pesticides? I don’t know.

Everything’s a compromise. Call me a bad greenie for breaking with the ‘organic = good, GMO = bad’ binary, but here’s what I think: Wrenching humanity off its current course of self-destruction and on to a more sustainable path is a big, messy, complicated problem. And ignoring potential solutions just because we’re ideologically — not rationally — opposed may not be helpful in finding solutions. It’s possible we’ll need GMO technology when the climate starts changing too quickly for our old plants and ways of agriculture. It’s possible GMO and organic could complement each other for more sustainable agriculture and stable food supplies. One thing is clear: we can’t go backwards.

What do you think about GMOs? Would you eat a GMO Brandywine?

Photo by Amanda Quintana-Bowles 

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30 responses to this post.

  1. Another excellently reasoned post! Thanks for all your thought-provoking stuff!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Julie Andrea on 02/20/2012 at 20:28

    Years ago I remember hearing about the problems with strawberries and oranges freezing when there is an unexpected frost or snowfall and how there was an idea, proposal .. whatever .. to find out what it is in Arctic Char that prevents the fish from freezing in its cold environment, isolate that gene and then add it to the fruit to prevent it from freezing. THAT idea makes me feel ill.
    Julie Andrea

    Reply

    • Hi Julie Andrea,

      I agree that putting animal genes in produce seems a bit squicky, but I’m not sure that’s enough reason not to consider it on environmental grounds. My uncle asked me once whether, as a vegetarian, I would eat a tomato with rabbit genes. I said yes, on the grounds that the tomato doesn’t feel pain. If you could prove to me that strawberries with fish genes are 1) safe for humans and other organisms in the long term and 2) environmentally advantageous, I’d probably be open (if not exactly enthralled) with it. The idyllic image of the farm is a far cry from Monsanto labs, but then again, so is big agriculture. I completely support sustainable agriculture. I just don’t think organic is the only answer, or that supporting it should exclude all other possible solutions.

      Reply

  3. It might be idealistic, but you just can’t shake the Monsanto-and-friends issue. Creating plants that can’t reproduce, patenting seed, withholding seed if people can’t pay for it or if there’s a whiff of something political going on, adding non-plant genes to plants…That’s almost as terrible as fish genes in tomatoes. There’s nothing fishy with organic produce, except that the cost of it to get to market snowballs in the consumer.
    In terms of organic sprays used, it’s generally pyrethrum, iron chelate and Derris dust (here in Australia), all enviro-friendly and have a withholding period before consumption; farmers lose organic acccreditation if withholding and danger-free pesticide use isn’t adhered to.
    As for water, here in Oz we have the problem of drought for 10 years, flooding for 3. If farmers recaptured their water instead of letting it evaporate, they’d leave the water tables alone – that’s for both sides.

    Reply

    • Hi Ali,

      I think it’s a shame GMO has become synonymous with Monsanto’s business practices, because the two are not inevitably related. The example I provided of the GMO heirloom was proposed by researchers at the University of California, Davis and would use tomato genes in a different type of tomato, which I find it hard to have a problem with. The papaya example suggests that taking the corporate out of GMO is still possible.

      Australia’s organic certification is probably a bit different than America’s. A lot of local farmers here complain that getting organic certified involves considerable expense and hoop-jumping, so that the farms that end up getting certified organic are the big ones — often NOT the farmers who use the most sustainable methods. One study showed that organic pesticides are carcinogenic at roughly the same percentage as synthetic pesticides, and due to lower effectiveness, are sometimes applied in greater quantities. Of course there are plenty of farmers who are doing organic the right way, but the label alone doesn’t guarantee it. The best way to get sustainable food is still to go to the farmers’ market and talk to the farmers about how they raise their crops, what they spray, how often, whether they use integrated pest management…

      Reply

  4. Thank you so much for this thought provoking post. I agree on so many levels, and it’s horrifying news to me that organic pesticides are just as carcinogenic as the synthetic ones.

    I mean the truth is that humans have been modifying the genetics of plants since agriculture began, we’ve just been using different methods to do it. And I really don’t have a problem with genetic modification per se… its the things they use it for that worry me… like making plants that can be drenched in herbicide, because, I really don’t want to eat something that was soaked in poison. I have the same concerns about the BT pest resistant strains. I mean BT is used throughout organic agriculture, but I’m not really sure that I want to eat it, and when it’s genetically engineered into the plant there’s no way to avoid eating it.

    Is it just me, or does it seem more and more likely that humanity is approaching some sort of tipping point? Maybe all generations feel this way when new technology appears, but I just can’t escape the feeling that we’re constantly trying to squeeze more blood from the proverbial turnips, and our margins for error keep getting smaller and smaller. There are just so many people to house, feed etc, and the limited nature of our resources is becoming more and more evident.

    And, in answer to your question, would I eat a GMO heirloom tomato? Well, probably not… and it has nothing to do with the GMO part. I tried an heirloom tomato once and I thought it was one of the more disgusting things I’ve ever tasted. Seriously, it was pulpy and mealy and had a really yucky flavor. Perhaps I’m just a hybrid tomato kind of girl! :~)

    Reply

    • Hi Cat,

      My understanding is that organic certification requires lower detectable levels of pesticides, and since the dose makes the poison, there’s probably still some justification for buying organic. (Also, organic farmers are supposed to use other methods before turning to pesticides, and plenty do.) I’m willing to spend more for organic if it treats the Earth more gently than other methods, but I’m not particularly concerned about exposure to trace levels of pesticides. Again, I’m not a very paranoid person, and I completely understand that other people would be more concerned.

      Resistance to GMO-bred hardiness is a huge problem, especially when we depend on GMOs for monocropping. Given how well monocropping has worked for us in the past (Potato Famine, etc.), you’d think we’d stop trying to rely on a single variety. I certainly don’t think GMO is the answer to all of our problems — just a potential answer to some of them. And perhaps not a very permanent one, either.

      My friend brought over a huge purple-red heirloom tomato last summer. We cut it open and it literally looked like a slab of raw steak. Definitely a change from the hybrids! Part of the appeal for me is the novelty, but when it comes to straight eating, I’m rather fond of Early Girls myself.

      Reply

  5. Awesome post, thanks for taking a look at the thorny issues! The GMO idea you proposed sounds like a good idea for reducing pest attack and resource consumption. The only thing is that every time a gene is implanted, there’s an antibiotic marker tagged along with the transgene, so every cell in the tomato would express the antibiotic, which is bad for your body’s bacteria. Then there’s still the ecological damage – enhanced pest resistance creates more superbugs. So it’s not as bad when stripped of the political/legal challenges, but it’s not ideal.

    Organic is definitely starting to outgrow itself. Most organic farms still employ substitution farming, still very much ignoring the larger ecology of the farm. And I think this is why you have issues like pest attack, poor harvest, and high water use. Organic farms are still mostly monocropped, creating disease vulnerability. We aren’t designing the farm and practices from a whole systems, sustainability point of view.

    There needs to be a shift from organic to nature-based farming, which may be happening ever so slightly… There’s a wild and notorious Japanese farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, who developed a natural farming technique for growing rice and citrus orchards. He was able to grow abundant harvests of rice, while using a tiny fraction of the water his neighbors used. Everyone thought he was crazy of course, but it turns out he started a revolution. His work on natural farming influences practices like Permaculture today.

    Considering all that you wrote about Brandywines, I probably won’t be eating them. :P

    Reply

    • Hi Lynn,

      Thanks for sharing your expertise! There’s clearly lots for me to learn about GMO. I’d still be curious to what extent disease (or nematode) resistant bacteria would affect the human body, and at what threshold. This sounds like a question for my uncle.

      I agree that there are many ways in which GM is not ideal. Developing resistance is probably my biggest concern (although it doesn’t stop us from using antibiotics), and monocropping anything strikes me as a pretty bad idea. Still, there might come a time when we need to develop drought-resistant crops, or versions of fruit trees that don’t have to freeze in order to produce fruit. I think the uncertainties of climate change kind of force us to consider band-aid solutions as we scramble to adapt.

      Permaculture, integrated pest management, and more holistic approaches to growing food all sound like more appealing long term options.

      Reply

      • Posted by jason on 02/24/2012 at 14:44

        Great post. Just a point of clarity on Lynn’s post — you don’t need to leave an antibiotic marker in after you put in the gene. There are ways to remove the marker (or to put the gene in without one in the first place) and I’m pretty sure the USDA won’t allow you to leave in antibiotic markers in approved crops (though not certain). I work on making GMO bacteria rather than plants — the techniques aren’t identical but the approach is similar and you don’t need to leave in the marker.

        Reply

        • Hi Jason,

          Thank you for your clarification! I’m not a scientist and I certainly appreciate expert opinions on these important issues. I hadn’t even heard of GMO bacteria before. If you’d ever like to post about your perspective as a scientist working in genetic modification, please consider this an open invitation. i think it’s great to get opinions from all sides of the issue.

          Reply

          • Posted by jason on 02/24/2012 at 17:40

            Yeah, GMO bacteria are what make many modern drugs. If you know any diabetics, they inject insulin that is made by GMO E.coli.

        • I think a lot of people railing against GMO probably don’t know that — I certainly didn’t. Thank you for today’s moment of enlightenment! :)

          Reply

          • Posted by jason on 02/24/2012 at 18:01

            Hah, yeah imagine putting human genes into E.coli! What could be scarier? Yet this is the foundation for half of the new drugs in the last 20 years. Fighting all GMOs is way too broad, we’re going to need GMO technology if we want to move to a sustainable world — especially GMO plants, that’s going to be the engine, IMO.

        • Yeah, in my past work as a biochemistry researcher, all I did was genetic engineering – cloning new strains of E. Coli that held my particular gene of interest. Genetic modification is basically the foundation of all genetic engineering and molecular biology work. It’s the way you create fluorescent probes, or cell-specific targeting mechanisms. So in my experience the antibiotic marker was always present, and Vandana Shiva has mentioned that they are present in GM food, so that is why I brought it up. Unfortunately, call me a pessimist, but I wouldn’t count on the USDA to remove the antibiotic marker in food.

          If you have a diverse variety of crops growing one area, like you may have heard of the “three sisters” – corn, beans, and squash complement each other really well. In this way, you diversify the pest population, and therefore no one pest gets control to cause a huge problem. You also add to the disease resistance of the soil – diversifying the soil population so nasty nematodes are eaten up or prevented from gaining a foothold. The soil food web is something I am looking to study – how can we engineer the soil food web through manipulating the above-ground system, so that the predator-prey relationships are in balance and no disease-causing nematode can gain presence?

          As you can see, science takes time, and me wanting to research this means it would only happen as a “technique” after maybe 10 years of research + development.

          Also, there are methods in “dry farming” that use no water, save for a huge dose of compost or compost tea upon planting. Unfortunately because little mainstream research has been done on these methods, they are not used in
          large-scale farming.

          So I have no straight answers, just more ideas and more possibilities. I would avoid looking to GMO’s as either a Savior or a Demon. GMO’s should not be the #1 answer, and should be reserved for more dire situations. Not all GMO’s are bad, as they have been a foundation of new medicine (what about traditional herbs?).

          What I really think is that we screwed up the whole ecosystem and now we’re looking to GMO’s to fix the problem. The real solution is to restore the natural ecosystem, but that seems a little far-fetched for most people. Population is a HUGE problem in that sense.

          Reply

  6. I have a comment on “golden rice”: I read once you need to eat three pounds a day of it to get the full benefit. And it is generally aimed at populations that have other, cheaper, more natural ways to get their vitamin A. For instance, in much of south-east Asia papayas, which grow like weeds and of which the fruit are _stuffed_ with vitamin A (as well as fiber and other nutrients), are almost free. In some places you do yourself and your neighbours a huge favour by eating them. Personally, I would go for the papayas any day.

    Reply

    • Hi CelloMom,

      I’m with you on the papayas! I grew up eating rice every single night and now almost never eat the stuff. I’m not an expert on the golden rice, but according to Wiki anyway, the vitamin A dosage has been increased since initial experiments, and the level of vitamin A needed to prevent blindness is much lower than the RDA in developed countries. The fact is that a lot of people in especially poor areas, for whatever reason, go blind because of vitamin A shortfalls. I don’t know why they don’t have access to natural foods with high levels of it, and that would certainly be another angle to address the issue. There’s always more than one way to solve a problem, and in this case, I don’t see why multiple solutions shouldn’t be applied.

      Reply

  7. Posted by Andrea on 02/23/2012 at 09:13

    Oh Jennifer, I could write an entire post in response to yours! :)

    Creating hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables is totally fine with me, and over humanity’s agricultural history it has happened many times. Genetic modification, on the other hand, is a little scary because we aren’t entirely sure what might happen down the road. And yes, Monsanto is evil and cruel, and as long as they exist in the way they do today, I can’t say I’ll ever fully support GM food.

    But what’s really wrong with agriculture today is that we’re doing things backwards. How do we manage pests? By spraying chemicals and splicing genes. In other words, we’re either hurting ourselves (toxins in those chemicals) or taking a really drastic measure (genetic surgery to counter infection). What could we be doing instead? Working from the soil up to avoid these problems in the first place. Why are we growing varieties anywhere but the climate they came from? Drought-intolerant tomatoes in dry, Mexican soil? Really? What were we thinking? What ARE we thinking? Planting monocultures that chase away not only wildlife above the ground but healthy organisms in the soil itself that keep it healthy? We shouldn’t expect a good outcome when the primary motivator for large farms is profit. It seems that more and more, these days the only way to feel good about the food you eat is to grow it yourself or have a long conversation with the farmer or farm worker who grew it when you visit the market.

    A friend recently said something really interesting: in stories we always talk about how cool time travel would be, but in reality if we instantaneously moved from where we are now (in space and time) to a random point in history, we’d be as disease-prone or more so than your Brandywine tomatoes. We’d be exposed to all sorts of bacteria and viruses that we have no defence for. You wouldn’t fix that kind of problem by genetically altering the time-travelling person… you’d bring the person back to where they belong. Wow, who knew I’d ever use a sci-fi analogy for the food system? :)

    Reply

    • Hey Andrea,

      Please do! You know you’re welcome to guest blog here any time you want. And since I’m not a gardener, I really appreciate input from people who are actively involved in growing plants and making food. I think Lynn’s comment and yours are on the same line — our whole food growing system is ass backwards from a sustainability perspective. Our band-aid solutions provide short term relief but have long term problems. I completely agree with your comment that the only way we can be 100% sure our food is grown with the principles of sustainability and eco-responsibility in mind is if we grow it ourselves or get to know our local farmers and shop only from those we agree with. The problem is that both of these take time and education.

      Reply

  8. I would love GE disease resistant brandywine tomatoes! Engineering disease resistance and longer shelf life into think like heirloom vegetables & delicate fruits that normal have a short shelf life then we could help increase variety, reduce costs, and reduce environmental impact.

    Reply

    • Hi Skeptical Vegan,

      I’m pretty happy about the idea of reducing food waste and making our food system more efficient, too. I think I’d prefer a system that offered greater long term stability than GMO, but I think they can be good solutions for specific problems. There are so many things wrong with our food system (not only how we grow food, but how consumers eat) that multiple solutions and innovation are going to be necessary to fix them.

      Reply

      • I agree that GMOs are not the only solution, though I do think some are oto pessimistic based on current application without looking toward future applications (the most exciting I find are salt tolerant crops able to be irrigated with sea water). But of course many other things are needed such as shifts in input usage and resource management.

        Reply

        • Salt tolerant crops may well be something we’ll need to have in the future. GMO sounds a heck of a lot more appealing than starvation! Again, though, I wish we could really come together and address climate change NOW instead of waiting until we’re forced to come up with short term band aid solutions — waiting until it’s our only option just doesn’t seem like a smart thing.

          Reply

  9. GMO technology is the transfer of genes from one species to another, otherwise you are referring to a hybrid. By definition a GMO product has had its genome altered. This is called recombinant DNA technology.

    GMO products include medicine and vaccines. Other benefits do include increased nutrients, yields and stress tolerance of crops and animals. Environmentally GMOs contribute to conservation of soil, water and energy and provide food security for growing populations. HOWEVER, there are potential human health impacts including allergies, transfer of antibiotic resistance, and unknown health effects. A major environmental impact that we are already seeing is cross pollination contamination and there are unknown effects on soil microbes and flora and fauna diversity.

    Most of the controversy today revolves around intellectual property rights, ethics, Labeling and right to know, and societal impact skewed in the interest of rich countries.

    Studies indicate that almost all soybeans, corn, alfalfa,cotton and canola grown in the US is GMO.

    Keep in mind that all organisms are evolving and adapting. There are phenomenal examples of nature. Once we alter a genome evolution and adaptation begins.

    Reply

    • Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for the clarification. The GMO heirloom tomato example is actually from the book. I think GMO is becoming one of those terms that lay people have a different definition of than the technical one. I would still consider inserting genes from one tomato to another in the lab a form of genetic modification, although one that is distinctively less squicky sounding than putting rabbit genes in a tomato.

      It will be interesting to see what the impact of GMO on human and ecosystem health turns out to be. I do think a lot of the more dire predictions will turn out to be overblown. I’m with you about finding cross pollination concerning — especially due to the ruling that genes can be patented. We certainly are heading into unfamiliar territory.

      I appreciate your balanced perspective on this issue!

      Reply

  10. [...] of buying from the supermarket, where I can’t be guilt tripped into paying $4 a pound for organic heirloom tomatoes that the grower wrested at great personal cost and effort from nematode-infested [...]

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  11. [...] tomatoes. If you get tomatoes in winter, they probably come from either Florida or Mexico. Florida: tons of pesticides (soil is packed with nematodes and terrible for tomatoes). Mexico: American demand for certified [...]

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  12. [...] tomatoes. If you get tomatoes in winter, they probably come from either Florida or Mexico. Florida: tons of pesticides (soil is packed with nematodes and terrible for tomatoes). Mexico: American demand for certified [...]

    Reply

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