Monday, 03 June 2013 14:36

GMO - Frankenfruit Fears

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Question: "Are your fruit trees all not g.m.o.? Tons of people are asking this year." (This most recent question came from a customer in Tennessee).

Short Answer: The nursery plants and trees purchased today from L.E. Cooke Co originated in traditional breeding programs and were not created using genetically modified organisms (GMO) through gene splicing in the process.  This would include the rootstocks as well as the scions where applicable.

Long (Really Long) Answer:

[This is not meant to offend but to make each of us think, so please take some of my comments with a degree of levity and leave the baseball bats at home. ]

This question has been asked much more frequently in recent years and when it started showing up in the heartlands of America and not in the more radical rabidWink progressive areas of the West, it is time to publish a more comprehensive response.

What is GMO?  If you don't think this through and instead use it as a magical hot button for inflamed discourse, then you might be no better than the radical Left and radical Right radio talk show hosts that polarize the public and the government to accomplish nothing of value.  We are becoming a culture of high emotions and low information.  But I digress...

Do you have children?  I assume, with a great degree of confidence, that they are not exactly identical to their parents.  So they are "genetically modified".  Does this illustration shed any light on the necessity to understand the term GMO?

Every fruit tree variety, every different flower variety and all the diversity in the plant (and animal) world exists because of genetically different traits.  And they did not all exist "in the beginning" so to speak.  Over time we have seen the diversity increase (and sometimes decrease) due to man or other natural/unnatural causes.

Genetic modification happens in nature all the time - naturally.  Birds and bees, eggs and sperm, pollen and stigma (pollination).  And it can happen un-naturally when breeders find a flower or fruit they like and deliberately cross pollinate it with another with traits to their liking to come up with a superior flower or fruit with the combined traits they like.  And lots of failures in the process.  Has any of this "Genetic Modification" crossed some line for you as unacceptable?  Why?  For most people, this kind of GMO is perfectly acceptable.

Now let's take it a step further.  At one time the idea of In-Vitro fertilization was shocking.  I still am opposed to selective human breeding (for example they would never have bred me - needs glasses, bald way too young and getting fat in old age).  But I have found it acceptable for those parents who struggle to naturally conceive a child and know the blessings that this modern technology offers.  Cultural acceptance has generally occurred on this topic.

Let's jump to modern grape breeding.  I believe most all the modern seedless grapes have been bred with the well-known Thompson Seedless Grape somewhere in the parentage.  Here is a breeding dilemma: If you want to cross a seedless green grape with a red or purple grape to get a red or purple seedless grape but there is no seed in the grape that came from the pollinated flower, what do you plant to see if the new plant will produce red or purple, seedless grapes?  The method of growing a new plant from embryo rescue has given breeders the chance to give the world a number of the seedless grape varieties as well as many other varieties that do not produce viable seed.  If you are opposed to this, you better stop eating many of the seedless grapes, raisins, seedless watermelons, male asparagus, bananas, avocados and many other healthy seedless varieties you are so fond of.  No one that I know of considers this objectionable "GMO".  But it is a very technical process.

Up to this point, the products we grow have been genetically modified by nature (chance seedlings, bud sports on existing trees) or by breeders deliberately crossing varieties through pollen transfer or found by plantsmen searching the globe for new things we have not seen in the West before.  If you are opposed to any of this type of Genetic Modification, you better stop eating everything and check off the planet.

Let's take it a step further.  I'll look again at grapes.  Pierce's Disease is a big problem in some areas of the country and is spreading.  Glassy Winged Sharpshooters spread the disease and the hope to keep that pest forever contained to isolated areas is likely to fail.   It is a huge risk to the grapes and wine we all enjoy in our culture.  There are a rare few varieties of grape vines that seem to be immune to the disease.  Those grape vines are now being naturally cross bred with more favorable selections for fresh eating and wine making.  They are being cross bred both the old fashioned way and through In-Vitro Embryo Rescue.

But the scientists have discovered the genetic "markers" of the plants that resist Pierce Disease.  To speed things up, they are looking to see if the markers exist in the newly bred plants before wasting a long time growing the plant, fruiting it and then infecting it with Pierce Disease to see if it fails or not.  Due to the sensitivities against GMO, they are clearly not employing gene splicing but breeding naturally.  The end result hopes to be many new selections of grapevines resistant to Pierce Disease but at a much faster pace. Read more about it here: U.C. Davis Article

Is breeding to select naturally occurring trait like resistance to Pierce Disease something you oppose?  Why?  You might ask your Texas friends since a lot of the successful grapevines in Texas had to be Pierce Disease resistant.  Your friends in Texas are a little different aren't theyWink?  (I only say that because some of the best people I personally know live in Texas!).  Has Pierce Disease resistance in the grapes been harmful to them?  Fair warning - many of the grapes in the future probably will be bred to include this trait.  So far I have not seen new grapes yet released to the trades from these efforts, but they will come.  (Update 8-22-13: Interesting article raises the question: Would You Drink GM Wine?)

Frankenstein Fruit?

Now let's take it a step further into the territory that some seem to feel may be objectionable.  Humans seem to be rather creative in solving problems.  One problem is the huge amount of time it takes for a breeder to cross pollinate a variety, wait for the seed, plant the seed and wait a looong time for the tree to grow up and bear fruit. Only to discover it is not what he wanted.  Through the marvels or mystery of genetic mapping, smarter people than I have been able to identify the parts of the natural gene that produces various characters.  Breeders can (and do) cross pollinate until the trait of that gene naturally appears in the offspring. (Bigger flowers, sweeter fruit, earlier fruiting, resistance to mildew, resistance to peach leaf curl, etc.)

Question:  With the technical process of splicing a gene of a desired trait into another similar gene that duplicates what a breeder would have done over a lot longer time, is there a difference in the end result?  This is the philosophical question that is part of the hot topic so think about it carefully.

Are there different traits that are acceptable or taboo to play with through breeding?  Is earlier fruiting OK?  Is later blooming to avoid frosts OK?  Larger fruit or more productive trees?  Less chill hours?  Longer blooming?  Smaller or larger trees? Resistance to mildew?  Tolerant of alkaline soils and salts? Etc.

Are the same traits acceptable or taboo through gene splicing?  Why or why not?  Does the method make a difference?  Why or why not?  Does gene splicing make a "Frankenstein" plant whereas natural breeding and forced selection doesn't?

Is it the method of gene splicing part of the debate or what is chosen to splice?  Are traits from within the same species of plants acceptable to splice but not traits from other different organisms?  Example, is it OK to splice/breed the thornless trait into more rose selections but not the inflorescence from jelly fish into flowers?  (Glow in the dark flowers - hmmm...) Most people love the Plum / Apricot crosses that created the Plumcots or Pluots (done through natural breeding of course).  Pretty complex set of decisions when you think about it.

How far is too far?  I suspect I am willing to accept more than some of the readers of this blog article.  There are some genetic modifications going on that I question and may need a whole lot more testing before I would jump on the side supporting it.  For example, splicing Bt into corn is one form of manipulation I question and would need to know a lot more about before I could support it.  I am admitting my ignorance on it - but that is not a reason to beat a drum against it.

This is a big question and a hot topic.  Make sure you understand breeding, selection of traits and improvement of plant products before flying off the handle at the term "GMO".  The term may encompass a whole lot of what you will accept and want to eat.  I am sure this discussion and debate will continue many years into the future.

[Update 10-24-2016] Back in July Obama signed Senate Bill 764 which helped define some terms as it related to labeling laws.  "Bioengineering" is defined as "for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature."  Does this definition help the discussion or help draw a line in which you may or may not want to cross? Does it give acceptable lattitude for some genetic engineering that is faster than breeding cycles yet accomplishes the same safe end goals?  Somehow I'll bet not everone is satisfied.

Back to my simple answer: The nursery plants and trees purchased today from L.E. Cooke Co originated in traditional breeding programs and were not created using genetically modified organisms (GMO) through gene splicing in the process.  This is not a policy - just a statement of fact.  What the future holds will be looked at carefully from many sides - most likely much more so by the generations beyond me.

Ron Ludekens 6-3-2013