Demystifying GMOs for gardeners

Learn more about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) during the Smart Gardening Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 2, 2019.

Introductions of resistance genes to eggplant have led to reduced use of pesticides and lower exposure to workers. Photo by Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension.

The development and utilization of GMOs is not well understood by most consumers, causing them to be susceptible to misleading claims and advertising. The term “GMO” stands for genetically modified organism, something man, in some fashion, has been working on for thousands of years. A GMO could be any organism, but most commonly it is a plant in which a foreign genetic sequence has been inserted into its DNA. These plants have been modified to achieve desired traits such as drought, pest resistance, nutritional improvement and others. In an age when concern about using chemicals or irrigation water to grow plants is heightened, wouldn’t it be nice to have plants that could withstand pest influences and survive drought with less costly intervention by us? Yet, like many scientific advances, myths are perpetuated, advancements are scorned and progress is stilted because consumers don’t understand the process and science behind it.

Environmentally savvy smart gardeners know the importance of reducing fertilizer, chemical, tillage and irrigation inputs. According to Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, some GMO crops, such as glyphosate tolerant species, reduce the need for excessive cultivation that disrupts soil health and can lead to compaction. At the same time, breeding insect resistance into GMO crops gives them a natural form of defense, resulting in lessening or even eliminating the need for costly pesticide sprays. Overall, scientists say GMOs have reduced chemical pesticide use, both herbicides and insecticides, by 37 percent.

Ron Goldy, senior Michigan State University Extension educator, will be discussing GMOs during the 2019 Smart Gardening Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Saturday, March 2, at the DeVos Place.

The most commonly developed genetically modified (GM) crops are corn, soybeans and cotton, but Goldy says that technically all domesticated plants are genetically altered in the sense that they were generated using traditional breeding methods and contain a mixture of parental genes. Genetically modified plants not only allow a producer to lower and eliminate certain pest control strategies. Genetically modified plants are also noted for decreasing farmworkers exposure to pesticides, according to Goldy.

“Using GM cotton has moved India from a cotton importer to one of the top cotton exporters,” said Goldy. “A Cornell University and USAID-funded project in Bangladesh more than doubled income for eggplant producers through the introduction of GM eggplant. Not having to control insects has also led to decreased clinical visits from pesticide exposure since most farmers in developing countries do not use proper precautions when applying insecticides.”

So, how does a gardener make informed choices about GM plants, not only about food but also later on, with seeds and plants? Join MSU Extension during the 2019 Grand Rapids Smart Gardening Conference for a look at what GMOs really are, how they are created and how they impact our world. For more information, go to 2019 Grand Rapids Smart Gardening Conference to download a brochure and register for the conference.

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