One question I have often gotten as a grower from customers at Farmers Markets is whether an unusual produce item – like purple carrots or yellow string beans – is GMO or not. These three letters form an acronym, and it would not surprise me if many of those inquirers did not know what they stood for.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are the concern of many consumers. Often perceived with fear as the result of a science lab experiment, GMOs are even a concern of home gardeners who want to ensure that the seeds they plant are not under the ‘spell’ of a mad scientist.

Full disclosure – my first job after graduating with my Doctorate was in a molecular breeding lab at the University of Georgia. Molecular breeding is another less perturbing moniker for genetic modification, which tends to evoke emotional reactions from the public – and rightfully so! The thought of tinkering with the blueprint of life and creating novel organisms has been the theme of sci-fi thrillers for as long as the movie industry has existed.

It is my duty as a scientist and a consumer to allay the fears of those who border on paralysis when deciding what is safe to eat or grow because of the fear surrounding this technology.

The “Genome”

First, we must establish how living organisms adapt to their surroundings. It all boils down to ‘survival of the fittest’ – the birds, plants, or insects that have what it takes to survive in tough times and conditions get to pass their genes on to the next generation. This genetic endowment is what offers fitness and enables them to persist when others of a different genetic inheritance crumble.

This genetic endowment is called the ‘genome’ – the collection of genes that tell the developing body what to create and how to react in certain conditions. If lucky, the bacterium, virus, fungus, or frog would have a genome that enables it to survive in harsh conditions and thrive to outcompete others of its kind when conditions are optimum. This allows it to live long enough to reproduce and create the next generation with similar fitness. The long and short of it is that the less-fit organisms will not survive long enough or well enough to pass on their less-fit genome to a succeeding generation.

Over time, the population of plants, porpoises or pilchers becomes dominated by the genome that confers optimum fitness for the environment at hand until conditions change either abruptly or gradually over time, making it incapable of surviving in the new conditions. This process of evolution happens over centuries or millennia, depending on the organism’s lifespan. This is called natural selection.

Artificial Selection

The birth of agriculture over 10,000 years ago ushered in artificial selection on a large scale. Artificial selection is the result of us deciding which traits we want to persist in successive generations. Artificial selection is Grammy saving the seeds from the sweet watermelon she got from the neighbor or the conch salad vendor saving the seeds from the largest and juiciest sour oranges he used. Each successive season, the most desirable fruits and vegetables ensured their immortality in the next generation as the consumer held on to the seeds to enjoy the same pleasures in years to come.

Traditional plant breeding, also artificial selection, involves plant breeders making predetermined crosses, where pollen from one parent with great characteristics is introduced to the female part of the flower of another plant with great characteristics – all with the hope that the random shuffling of genes amongst the children will yield at least one offspring that has that winning, magical combination of characteristics.

This process, although faster than natural selection, not only requires decades depending on the natural lifespan and the number of favorable traits desired in the progeny, but there is also no guarantee that unfavorable traits will not be passed on. Traditional Plant breeding often seeks to increase yields, extend shelf-life, improve flavor, or increase resistance to pests and diseases.

Genetic Engineering

This is where genetic engineering or molecular breeding steps in and shows off. What used to take more than a decade can now be achieved in a fraction of the time. The technology of plant genome sequencing or elucidation in the late nineties spurred the GMO environment that we live in today. Scientists could now identify which gene or group of genes were responsible for specific characteristics like yields or disease resistance.

Further discoveries, some from observing microorganisms in nature, gave the tools to introduce novel genes into plant genomes, ‘silence’ genes, rendering them ineffective, or turn genes on that were ineffective or ‘silenced.’ Deeper investigations into the defense strategies of bacteria yielded yet another more precise, faster, and cheaper tool to alter a plant’s genome. All this boils down to is a faster pace of creating high yields of the ideal crops while increasing resistance to pests, diseases, drought and heat.


So, what does all this mean for the consumer? Whether the breeding occurs using traditional or modern molecular methods, a plant’s genome is altered. What concerns me as a consumer regarding genetic modification is whether the alteration includes introducing a gene that humans would never have encountered in nature in our entire history. The prime example of this is probably the most common genetic modification in commercial agriculture – glyphosate herbicide resistance.

Herbicides are chemicals that are applied generally to kill weeds in a crop. A crop that is genetically capable of resisting the effect of a herbicide enables a farmer to apply the herbicide on his entire field and have only the weeds affected – the fast and cheap way to weed hundreds or thousands of acres.

This modification developed by a global agrochemical company made the targeted herbicide the most used herbicide in human history, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes being applied annually worldwide. There are great concerns in the environmental and medical community surrounding the impacts of glyphosate on human and environmental health.

The concern in this case is largely surrounding the residues of the herbicide remaining on the crop as it traverses the food chain and not necessarily the gene itself.

Large-scale agronomic crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola are the most common glyphosate-resistant GMOs in cultivation today. This means products made from these crops contain the herbicide resistance gene and are likely to contain high levels of herbicide residues. While much of these grains are used for livestock feed, a lot of the GMO corn and soybeans are used in ultra-processed foods and drinks. Fried foods are often cooked in soybean oil made from GMO soy or canola.

Even though the cost of the technology is coming down, it is still quite expensive, making only the most globally economically viable crops eligible for its use. Because of this, as a home gardener, you can be confident that the cabbage or tomato seeds that cost less than $5 per packet and are readily available at your neighborhood nursery supply center are not GMOs.

The Artic Apple

A few fruits and vegetables currently on the market are GMOs. The Arctic apple, for example, was engineered to turn off the gene that results in the cut flesh turning brown when exposed to the air. The Pinkglow pineapple by Dole silences an enzyme that breaks down the naturally occurring lycopene in the fruit, resulting in a pink flesh. The Rainbow variety of papaw was developed to resist a virus that practically destroyed the industry in the Caribbean. If you have a papaw plant whose leaves at the top of the plant are smaller, distorted, and yellowish, it has probably contracted the dreaded papaya ringspot virus for which this variety was molecularly bred.

The technology of genetic modification of food crops is a controversial one. In more prosperous, developed countries where access to food is not a problem, more consumers tend to have strong feelings about it. In poorer, less developed countries, where agrarian economies rule, many farmers are grateful and even desperate for new crops that are drought-tolerant or pest and disease-resistant – their very existence depends on it. Wherever you stand on the issue, you have

choices as a consumer. Read labels and search the internet for information regarding what you have access to in your market. Talk to local farmers about the practices they use to produce crops. You have a right to know what is going into your body and whether to consume GMOs.

About One Eleuthera Foundation

Founded in 2012, One Eleuthera Foundation is a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to transforming our local island communities into thriving, self-sufficient ecosystems. We do this by focusing on five key areas: economic ownership, meaningful educational advancement, pathways to wellness, and environmentally sustainable communities centered around our island’s unique cultural identity. We run a number of social enterprises, including CTI, our vocational school; the Retreat Hotel, a training hotel for hospitality students; and our farm and Cooling House, which trains future farmers in the best sustainability and food production practices. Through OEF’s consistent dedicated efforts, the tenacity and resourcefulness of our legacy community, and the support of donors and partners, we are creating change in Eleuthera.