The Coastal Gardener: Is genetic engineering coming to your garden?

August 13, 2010|By Ron Vanderhoff
  • Genetically modified canola plants have escaped fields like this one and begun breeding. Genetically modified garden plants offer both promise and worry, with experts on both sides of the fence.
Genetically modified canola plants have escaped fields… (Daily Pilot )

A blue rose. A camellia that blooms year round. A hibiscus that never needs fertilizer. Lawns that are never attacked by insects. Oranges that smell like bananas and bananas that smell like oranges. Genetic modification, or GM, says it may all be possible.

The promise of new and better garden plants is exciting, but not without a few thorny issues. The knowledge of a plant's genetic footprint and especially how to manipulate that footprint may show scientists how to make double flowers, fragrant ones, more colorful ones. Disease or insect resistance could be added to a plant. Genetic engineering could prevent a plant form from setting seed, therefore producing more flowers.

Tempted by incredible plant possibilities, many people nonetheless fear that we may be lifting the lid on Pandora's box, and what might spill out may never be able to be put back in.

There are numerous concerns to consider. One is the question of biodiversity. Without the diversity offered by the enormous array of plants that have naturally evolved over millennia, the new superplants, grown in a worldwide monoculture, might be left dangerously susceptible to an as yet unknown pest or disease.


Then there's the fear that genes may escape from their genetically engineered hosts and infiltrate the DNA of other plants, especially wild plants. What that could lead to is almost anyone's guess, but the most severe scenarios involve a collapse of our natural ecology and a subsequent doomsday situation.

One dream of the agricultural world was a Roundup-resistant crop that would greatly simplify the task of weeding. Spray everything; the crop isn't fazed, but all else in the field dies. You can imagine the gardening potential in such a development. Agriculturally, of course, it's already been done and Roundup resistant varieties are now the standard for many crops Some estimates state that 70% of all the food consumed in the U.S. contains at least some genetically modified ingredients. More than 80% of our field corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets are genetically modified, and the number is growing quickly.

The corporations involved in genetic engineering, such as Monsanto and Bayer, have assured regulators and the public that the risk of genes escaping their genetically engineered hosts and infiltrating the DNA of other plants is minimal. Not so!

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