Like many first-timers at the Terp Farm, I was blown away by the attention to detail that goes into every step of the process. The Terp Farm is passionate about growing the very best sustainable produce possible. The farm manager, Guy, spoke in great detail about the principles of sustainable farming and what’s next for the farm. I used this as an opportunity to learn more about some hot topics to the general, non-farming, population: GMOs and Hybrid crops.
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
When talking about produce, GMOs are plants that are grown from genetically modified seeds. Scientists inject a gene into the seed, and this gene alters the plant’s DNA causing a mutation. These mutations are usually for the better and help plants grow bigger and healthier. This can be compared to the superhuman genetic mutation Spiderman experienced after being bitten by a spider.
As an aspiring Registered Dietitian, I need to be equipped with scientific evidence to back up my opinion on things like fad diets and “danger” foods. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot from the general public about GMOs and how they’re dangerous. So I asked Guy his opinion on this. He explained that there can be a miniscule amount of chemical in a GMO plant to protect it from an invasive predator, like an insect. But for this chemical to be harmful to a human it would need to be consumed in extreme excess. He compared this to the philosophy behind pesticides: they’re perfectly safe and quite helpful when used properly and regulated.
One downfall of farming GMOs is that these are proprietary products that are generated in a lab. A farmer needs may need to pay more to use GMO seeds. The same can be said for proprietary hybrid plants that are bred outside of the lab.
Some of our favorite types of vegetables are hybrids: sweet corn, meyer lemons, heirloom tomatoes. These are plants that have two separate “mother” and “father” sources that have been cross-pollinated to produce an altered seed. This seed can then be used to grow a new plant with characteristics from the mother and father plants, just like human reproduction.
When farming plants, farmers take seedlings from their crops to plant new crops. Unfortunately, this cannot be done with hybrid plants. The hybrid plant most often produces a seedling with either maternal or paternal DNA, and rarely both sets. Each time a farmer wants to grow a hybrid plant, cross-pollination must first occur. The cross-pollination is usually a proprietary process that occurs at one farm, and the hybrid seeds are then sold to other farmers.
The exception to this is with heirloom breeds. Heirloom is a term that refers to something that has been passed down for many generations. In farming, the term is given to a hybrid plant breed that has consistently passed down both sets of paternal and maternal characteristics at least 8 times. Once an 8th generation hybrid plant produces a hybrid seedling, it is considered to be a stable heirloom breed, like heirloom tomatoes. Farmers can then plant the seedlings from these heirloom plants to produce more of that same breed.
It is in my opinion that neither GMO or hybrid farming should be a health concern. With responsible techniques, both GMO and hybrid farming produce crops that are perfectly safe for human consumption, and arguably better than the natural breeds. However, the cost of seed is a concern for small and mid-sized farmers that may struggle with profitability.
Blog by: Rachel Parr, Dietetic Intern