GMO, Non-GMO and Tomatoes

There’s a lot going on these days with GMO versus non-GMO food.  Some say GMO food is fine, some say it’s unhealthy and others don’t have an opinion either way.  So what’s the scoop with GMO as it relates to tomatoes?

GMO – A Quick Summary

GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organism”.  It means that an organism has basically been artificially modified in some way, at a genetic level.   In looking at Wikipedia, the definition is:

“A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques (i.e. genetically engineered organism).”

By this definition, genes can be moved around in an organism, but no genes from another organism are introduced.  However, there is a specific kind of GMO called transgenetic, and it does involve splicing genes from something else.  Again per Wikipedia:

“A more specifically defined type of GMO is a “Transgenic Organism”. This is an organism whose genetic makeup has been altered by the addition of genetic material from another, unrelated organism.”

In either case, genes are artificially changed in some way.

What Are Hybrids?  Are They GMOs?

Hybrids are crosses between closely related plants or animals. For example, you may want a tomato that tastes like Pink Brandywine, but you want it to ripen much earlier and be only about 2 ounces in weight.  To get this, you could cross a Piink Brandywine with an earlier and smaller-sized tomato.  The seeds of that cross would have traits from both Pink Brandywine and the other tomato parent.  (Note:  This is a very simplistic explanation of hybridization; for more information see my post on tomato hybrids.)

Hybrids are not the same as GMOs.  For example, you could not cross a Pink Brandywine tomato with a cayenne pepper and get a tomato that is spicy with capsaicin.  Tomatoes and peppers are not closely enough related for them to cross with each other and create a hybrid.

You could, however, genetically engineer a tomato to be spicy by introducing a gene for capsaicin production — this would be classified as a GMO.

Are All GMOs Bad?

I don’t know that I can definitively answer that, but personally I would rather stay away from them in my food.

However, here is something to think about.  An organism can, spontaneously mutate and change its genetic makeup. Or, if can be bred to display a specific trait, and during the process some other undesirable trait can be expressed.

An example of this is with modern wheat, which has been modified through selective breeding to have more genes than older varieties of wheat.  Those extra genes are thought to be responsible for much of the gluten sensitivity that we see in today’s society.  No labs were involved, just many years of selective breeding.

And yes, I do try to stay away from wheat in my food.  I also stay away from grocery-store corn.  Where I live in Florida, a lot of corn is grown for the food market.  These days, it’s the GMO corn that makes it resistant to herbicides — i.e., the “Roundup Ready Corn”.  There is also a corn that has the genetic material for the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) bacteria, which acts as an insecticide.  I’m not exactly thrilled with the thought of eating an herbicide or pesticide that is impossible to wash off.

How do Tomatoes Fit In?

To the best of my knowledge, there are no GMO tomato varieties – yet.  Grocery store tomatoes are safe in that respect — they just don’t taste very good.  😉

Hybrid tomatoes are not evil either; there are plenty of good ones out there.  And in fact you can breed (i.e. hybridize) your own tomato variety if you wish.  No labs, just testing various crosses between tomato parents until you get the traits you want.  Which can take one growing season or many.

And by the way, non-GMO and organic do not mean the same thing.  A tomato can be non-GMO but grown with chemical fertilizers and/or pesticides.  So don’t assume tomato seeds that are listed as “non-GMO” are automatically organic.

Hopefully I’ve been able to help you understand GMOs a little better.  You will have to make up your own mind, but for my part I’m glad that tomatoes are safe for the moment!

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