RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When you're at the grocery store and come across a pluot (plum crossed with apricot), a nectarcot (nectarine crossed with apricot), or a seedless watermelon, do you think it's a genetically modified mutant or a farmer's experiment with hybrid plants? If you opted for the former, you'd be wrong, but you wouldn't be alone. "There's been a conscious effort on behalf of biotech companies to confuse people, saying that farmers have been using genetic modification for generations," says Jeffery Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, a nonprofit devoted to educating the public about the risks of genetically modified crops. That's not the case, he adds. Crossbreeding and creating hybrid crops, such as pluots and seedless watermelons, have been common practices for centuries, but the process is very different from genetic modification.
"Hybridization is based on sex," says Smith. Plant breeders take two "parents" of the same plant species that are closely related, and pollinate them so that they reproduce and gain certain desirable traits, such as drought resistance or the ability to repel pests. "Crossbreeding is effective in accelerating certain traits," he adds. "Farmers can identify those and grow the plants just as quickly as they would genetically modified crops."
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Hybrid plants (the result of crossbreeding) don't have any of the unhealthy effects that research is finding are associated genetically modified crops. And the method works just fine for creating new crops. "The practice of crossing hybrid seeds has been going on for centuries. It has a long track record that shows it can feed humans and mammals effectively," Smith says. There are hybrid corn varieties that resist the European corn borer as effectively as Bt corn (a form of GMO corn). And consider the case of Golden Rice, a genetically modified strain of rice that crop scientists have been struggling for years to get to the market, because they believe its high vitamin A levels could cure deficiencies in the developing world; its detractors question their evidence and feel that cheaper, more effective and less biologically risky solutions to vitamin A deficiency already exist. Smith says that some hybrid varieties of red rice have higher levels of vitamin A than genetically modified Golden Rice. But hybrid seeds can't be patented, as genetically modified seeds can, says Smith, and big industries aren't interested in investing in them.