Minnesota Farmer

Modified, a bit of history

The GMO debate is on because of the prop 37 vote in California.  Everyone seems to assume that genetic modification is new, or bigger than ever before, but it’s not.  Here are some groundbreaking modifications in plants and animals that happened before we were able to move genes around in a cell.

Changing for humanity

Somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 years ago, mankind started changing plants and animals around him.  You see, mankind was a thinking animal such as had never before walked the earth.  Men and women started noticing that certain kinds of plants were better than others for food.  They started protecting the ones that they found easiest to harvest, or producing more food.  As time went on the protected plants changed.  More and more they started showing the characteristics that people wanted.  The grain heads became bigger, the fruit became tastier.  Changes were coming because the need to protect themselves from those who ate them were no longer needed.  Man became the protector, the spreader of the “best” seeds, fruits and tubers.  Those plants that man wanted spread to new areas and became dependent on mankind.


One of the most changed of these plants was maize, corn here in the Americas.  Corn had made dramatic changes before Europeans found this continent.  The placement of the grain head had moved to the center of the plant and become larger.  Seeds also changed size and shape.  But the changes were not over.  When Europeans started to pick larger ears in a more organized fashion the yield per plant increased.  Then people found that if they cross-breed certain types of plants, you could get even more grain from each plant.  Corn was easy to cross-breed.  The male and female parts of the flower were separated from each other and by plucking off the male part you could force a cross between types.  Inbreed lines were developed and the hybrid seed business was born.  Maize became a tame plant that could no longer survive in the wild.

Other plants have also changed with human help.  The modern banana does not exist in the wild.  Wheat, barley, rye, peas, beans of all types changed to suit human needs.  Most grapes and apples, if grown from seed will not look anything like the parent.  If humans eat it, humanity has or will change it to suit our needs.


Animals also changed to suit our needs.  The village dog of Africa is perhaps the most true to type of all dogs, yet even it is like nothing in the wild.  Yes, you can cross come types of dogs with wolves, yet they are genetically different.

Consider the Terrier.  Chosen as a rat killer to protect a farmers grain, it is small, energetic and savage.  It’s large neck muscles are designed to shake a rat to death.  It is the best for its job.

The many types of shepherds are also chosen for their jobs.  They are gentile with sheep and cattle, yet know when to put a bit of snap in their jaws to get a stupid lamb to move.  Shepherds are considered to be the most intelligent of dogs, and why not, they work daily with mankind and must be able to understand commands given by had gesture, word or whistle.

Greyhounds, wolfhounds, dachshunds, bull dogs, poodles, every type of dog you can think of was chosen for a specific job, the hunt, or protection, yet they all came from the same ancestor.  The dog is molded to the needs of man, and because of that, they are everywhere.

Crossing species

Many seem to think that crossing species is a new thing.  They have forgotten the mule and the hinny.  Mules are the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.  The hinny is the offspring a male horse and a female donkey.  Horses and donkeys are different species, with different numbers of chromosomes. A donkey has 62 chromosomes, whereas a horse has 64.  Hinnies and mules, being hybrids of those two species, have 63 chromosomes and are sterile. The uneven number of chromosomes results in an incomplete reproductive system.  This is a cross that goes back thousands of years.

Another newer species cross is triticale.   Triticale (× Triticosecale), (/trɪtɪˈkl/) is a hybrid of wheat (Triticum) and rye (Secale) first bred in laboratories during the late 19th century. The grain was originally bred in Scotland and Sweden. Commercially available triticale is almost always a second generation hybrid, i.e., a cross between two kinds of primary (first cross) triticales. As a rule, triticale combines the high yield potential and good grain quality of wheat with the disease and environmental tolerance (including soil conditions) of rye. Only recently has it been developed into a commercially viable crop. Depending on the cultivar, triticale can more or less resemble either of its parents. It is grown mostly for forage or fodder, although some triticale-based foods can be purchased at health food stores or are to be found in some breakfast cereals.  When crossing wheat and rye, wheat is used as the female parent and rye as the male parent (pollen donor). The resulting hybrid is sterile, and must be treated with colchicine to induce polyploidyand thus the ability to reproduce itself.

These are not the only species combinations that mankind has helped produce long before modern GM methods were available.

GM starts

Modern genetic modification started with tobacco.  Tobacco seems to have been a gateway crop that modern GM testing began with in 1982.  In 1994, a herbicide-resistant tobacco was approved that was developed in France.  Herbicide-resistance was developed in soybeans the next year.  Since then many companies and universities have used GM methods to try to change many of the plants and animals important to people.

With the advent of GM soybeans mankind started eating modern genetically modified plants.  Those who balk at eating GM plant material have unknowingly been eating them for over 15 years now.  There has never been a scientifically proven human health problem that can be traced back to GM products.  In fact, if you look, you will see that all of the health problems that are blamed on GM food products had their advent before GM foods were introduced.

In conclusion

GM products are nothing new.  Humans have been changing plants and animals around them for thousands of years.  The modern methods of genetic modification have accelerated the process, but not produced the most dramatic changes seen in the history of our companion plants and animals.  Humans will continue to shape the plants and animals that travel through history with them.  Our modifications have assured that more and more people are fed on our little planet, and that is good, because every year there are more and more of us.


p.s.  Some parts of this blog post were lifted verbatim from Wikipedia.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hi Michael, The Prop 37 argument is one of labeling. If a food is given a GM label and people are educated to understand what GM is all about what is the problem from a farmer’s perspective? Monsanto, Dow, Dupont and other chemical companies argue that labeling will single out GM foods just the way organic singles out foods on grocery shelves today. Is this really a threat to farmers who grow GM crops? And since GM crops represent the bulk of what can be found in cereals and other processed foods, what would be the significance of labeling the ingredients on the box to show its origins? Please let me know because this is an interesting issue.

Comment by Len Rosen (@lenrosen4)

To most folks it will not make a bit of difference, except in cost. The cost of labeling, separate packages, pricing etc. will only cost the consumer, and for what? There is no difference as far as science can show. How do you label it then? Do you place all GM products in one basket? There are so many types of GM products, does it make a difference?
It comes down to that there is no scientific way to show if a product is from a GM product or not. We right now have organic labelled produce that was not raised organically, just so the seller can get more money. That will happen.
If you see a beef cut that ways ‘Hormone free,” laugh. No plant or animal can be raised with out hormones.
Buying food is an emotional activity for many. They will pay extra if it makes them feel better about it. Food is fuel to those who do not have the money to pick and choose. Farm folks want to feed the most people for the least cost. All of the rest is just a way to separate you from your dollar.
OK, so I’m jaded,a skeptic, but I do feel that moat people will see a label that says may contain GM products and see that as something bad.

Comment by Michael

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