Genetic Contamination May Not Mean What You Think It Means

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 8/1/11) In the debate about GMO crops, the “threat of genetic contamination” is often raised as a reason  to reject the technology.  Is this threat real?  Does it justify acts of vandalism?  Could it lead to the “End of Organics“?  Is it actually an over-blown issue?  To answer these questions it is necessary to put this issue in the context of basic plant biology. What We Are Talking About Is Really Just “Plant Sex” “Genetic Contamination” is an emotional term which obscures the fact that the underlying biological process in question is quite normal, natural and highly necessary.

Co-existence isn’t easy

Imagine that you own a small business selling heirloom seeds. Your most important (and profitable) seeds are from a special open pollinated tomato variety that you painstakingly bred under over the past decade by hand crossing other heirloom varieties and selecting the best of their offspring. These tomatoes are everything a tomato lover dreamed of – the perfect red color, soft yet firm texture, sweet yet flavorful taste, and they have high yields to boot. You’ve carefully transitioned your farm to organic and received your organic certification last year, so your seeds are in even higher demand than usual. Last year, you had far more requests for these special seeds than you could meet, so this year, you planted hundreds of tomato plants, planning to harvest all the seeds to dry and sell the following year to your tomato-hungry customers. The weather is perfect, the flowers are maturing and about set