To GMO, or Not To GMO?


To GMO or Not to GMO? That’s one of the garden-related questions before Windsor voters and those living in the rest of Sonoma County in the upcoming election.

For those who actually may have been spending a whole lot of time in the garden, possibly under rocks: California and the rest of the nation have a general election scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Yes, you can still register to vote. The deadline in California is Oct. 24. Don’t know your polling place? It’s easy to find out. To locate your polling place and get information on how to register to vote, visit the Sonoma County Clerk’s Office voter information website at vote.sonoma-county.org.

But back to GMOs: in Sonoma County, one of the hottest issues on the ballot is Measure M. It would ban GMO crops and plants in Sonoma County. So what’s a GMO? The initials stand for “Genetically Modified Organism.” Another common abbreviation is GE plants – genetically engineered. Plenty of gardeners and even quite a few Master Gardeners aren’t quite so sure exactly what a GMO or a GE plant is.

I was talking to one great gardener the other day who asked, “Genetically modified crops: why are people against those? Luther Burbank was all about plant breeding. That’s what GMO is, right?”

Yes, humans have been modifying crops and animals by selecting traits we like and breeding or cultivating to enhance that particular trait or several traits for thousands of years.

What’s new is our current ability to get down to the cellular level, inside the DNA of plants, and insert genes from non-plant species. I once listened to a bunch of scientists talk about the possibility of taking jellyfish genes – the ones that make some jellyfish glow in the dark – and inserting them into plants to make them glow in the dark too. It could look cool at night, and might make some easier to harvest, they speculated. And be a very visible example of genetic engineering.

(Scientists think of these things because they’re scientists, not because they’re evil.)

So, to illustrate the GMO debate: Let’s say scientists successfully took that snippet of jellyfish DNA and inserted it into grapes to make a completely new grape variety that would glow in the dark. And a commercial nursery started selling it.

And some wineries planted them along fences as a great landscaping plant. But then the original grapes in the nearby vineyards started glowing in the dark too. Or the old-fashioned grapes nearby died and glow-in-the-dark grapes started growing all over the vineyards like…crazy. And all of the glow-in-the-dark grapes turned out to have a fishy undertaste.

Sci-fi stuff? Maybe, or maybe not. For a lot of people, that’s the question behind GMOs. It’s why GMO opponents call genetically engineered plants and animals “Frankenfoods.”

GMO fans counter that through genetically modifying plant DNA and inserting genes from non-plant species, we could increase crop yields and feed hungry people at a cheaper cost. Or insert cancer-fighting chemicals into common foods. Right now, scientists have the ability to put rat DNA into lettuce to add Vitamin C, or insert moth DNA into apple plants to protect them from from developing fireblight – the bacterial disease you see withering apple and pear trees here.

Should we do that? It’s a pretty interesting question. Have you figured out how you’re going to vote on Measure M yet? The Windsor Garden Club is offering a little help at its Oct. 18 “Third Tuesday Talk.”

Certified Organic Farmer Joey Smith, of "Let's go Farm" in Santa Rosa, will be the speaker. Smith, an educator at SRJC's Shone Farm, will discuss getting your garden ready for autumn, fall planting, and amending soil. He’ll also explain a few basics about GMOs. And he’ll preview some events coming up at Shone Farm.

The evening starts at 6:30 with a meet and greet, appetizers, and Windsor Garden Club announcements. Program starts between 6:45 and 7 p.m. with Q&A to follow.

So what’s the other controversial gardening measure on California’s Nov. 8 ballot? Proposition 64. Look it up.

Teresa Hendrix is the social media and web volunteer for the Windsor Garden Club. Find out more about the club, including links to the Measure M website and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s position paper opposing Measure M, at www.windsorgardenclub.org.

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