We rise every week to cover farmers and agribusinesses! 





































Seed industry’s technology and terminology explained

As a veteran seedsman, I suggest we take a close look at the terminology being used in the media and public discourse concerning the “genetics” of the seed we plant and the subsequent products made from that seed and its progeny (which could be more seed, feed, food or fiber).

The term ‘genetically modified organism,” or GMO in today’s parlance, generally is thought to mean a seed or crop (and products derived from such) whose genetic makeup is in part created through a controlled, scientifically based, transgenic process so that the resultant seed and crop have attributes, qualities, and abilities heretofore not present in that species.

In the seed industry, we use the terms TRAIT or TRAITS when referring to these genetic modifications or enhancements. The crops most commonly and widely discussed in this conversation are soybeans that have been transgenetically modified to contain TRAITS which resist glyphosate nonselective herbicides (weed killer) and many field corn inbreds (parent lines developed for making hybrid crosses) that have been genetically engineered in a large variety of combinations.

When select TRAITED inbreds are crossed in hybrid seed corn production, the resulting seed produces plants with TRAITS that resist multiple herbicides as well as harmful insects. Most recently, the seed industry has introduced a transgenic-modified hybrid seed corn that will, under certain circumstances, require less water to produce crop yield levels that were previously not possible when water is in limited supply.

Transgenic modifications potentially enable crop growers to produce significantly greater yields of higher quality crops of corn and soybeans per acre. There are many other transgenic modifications under development. When they are approved for commercialization, they will likely enhance utilization and productivity of corn, soybeans, and other crops.

Today a very high percentage of livestock feed and processed food for human consumption is produced from transgenic modified seed. Laws are being passed on a state by state basis requiring food made from these transgenic modifications to be labeled as containing GMO products. The seed industry and many food-based industries believe that labeling of any kind should be uniform nationally. Thus, we support legislation, now before Congress, mandating uniform, voluntary food labeling thereby giving consumers a choice when buying food.

While that debate continues, seedsmen, food growers and processors as well as consumers should educate ourselves as to what various terms mean (or don’t mean); because regardless of the outcome of food labeling laws, there will continue to be levels of misunderstanding, confusion, and possibly misleading advertising in the seed and food sectors.

Genetic modification of certain plant species whose seed we produce for commercial production of food or feed in and of itself can be and has been from time immemorial, a widespread and natural process. Many species “self select“ during reproduction to survive.

In the modern scientific era, human intervention has manipulated the selection process in numerous ways. Plant breeders’ field selection of “the strongest and most productive plants” (out of a population of plants of the same species) is the time honored way to select and preserve the most productive and beneficial plants for reproduction. Hybridization (controlled crosspollination of inbreds of the same species) has been a commercially accepted way of genetically modifying plants for improved performance for almost a century.

One of the first methods of “genetic engineering” to come into commercialization was with the development of the “gene gun” at Cornell University. The gene gun enabled scientists to insert genetic material of one species into another species, the result of which could be studied and evaluated for beneficial commercialization of the “ transgenetically modified” plant. Since the advent of the gene gun, other methods have been discovered and utilized to enable genetic transfer between unrelated species.

The documentation and process required for introducing transgenic modified seed into commercial use is overseen and regulated by the USDA, EPA, and FDA - federal agencies charged with protecting the environment and the safety of the food supply.

The evaluation/testing process of new transgenic material is highly controlled and no production thereof can enter the food chain until the governing agencies approve. Depending on the nature of the modification, the timeline and testing for commercial introduction often takes many years, in some cases up to a decade.

Two of many approval-determining factors are genetic stability, which means that the modified product can be repeatedly reproduced with the same intended characteristics, and safety, the product’s commercial introduction must pose no threat to the environment or human health. Testing is extensive and has to be conclusive prior to approval being granted for commercialization.

Currently food growers (of both produce and livestock), food processors, and seed companies are responding to a group of consumers who request food that does not contain products of transgenic engineering. The term being assigned to these products is NON-GMO. This term is not to be confused with or assumed to mean ORGANIC.

Legitimately labeled organic produce and food products are produced and labeled under the National Organic Standards. The Standards have many certification requirements, one being the exclusion of transgenic seed use. However, there is nothing in the Organic Standards that requires testing for the adventitious—defined as “occurring sporadically or other than in the usual location”—presence of transgenic material in produce or food products labeled as organic.

Applying this definition to the adventitious presence of GMOs in seed or food brings us into the arena of debate and confusion. As a practical matter 100% NON-GMO is virtually unattainable in some food products, due to the widespread production of traited corn and soybeans and their general utilization in processed food. Therefore the industry and the public, likely through the legislative and regulatory development process, will need to come to an agreement on a tolerable percentage level of adventitious presence in seed and food labeled NON-GMO.

Another term that we use in the seed industry is CONVENTIONAL, which traditionally defines UNTRAITED seed varieties. While CONVENTIONAL varieties may exhibit natural and traditionally selected TRAITS, they do not contain transgenically introduced TRAITS.

However -- and this is where we must have full disclosure and understanding as a seed and food industry -- unless conventional and organic seed of species into which transgenic material has been introduced and the products commercially produced from that seed are tested for the adventitious presence of transgenic material, we cannot call them NON-GMO, as there may be unintentional adventitious presence.

Herein lies the conundrum and potential for misleading information and misunderstanding. CONVENTIONAL or ORGANIC does not automatically mean NON-GMO!

With commodities like corn and soybeans, we believe it is necessary to require a rigorous “identity preservation program” that goes from seed production through commercial production, and in some cases to food processing and distribution to the grocery store, along with appropriate testing for adventitious presence in order to legitimately claim that a product is NON-GMO.

As citizens of one of the wealthiest nations on earth, we have the privilege to deliberate over what we plant and produce and the ability to choose what we will and will not eat. While the discussions and debates proceed, let’s not forget the starving and undernourished of the world and thus inadvertently (or intentionally) deprive them of the life-sustaining and life-enhancing food they can have if the well-fed of the world continue to invest in and apply technology that we know has the potential to more ably feed the hungry. Many seed companies such as Seedway recognize that individual producers will want access to one or more of the seed types mentioned above and as such intend to meet the demand.

Don Wertman, Seedsman

Seedway LLC, Hall, NY