Vegetable Seed Production

Genetic Engineering

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Biotechnology and Vegetable Seeds

Biotechnology has become a cliché with many different meanings. The term was first widely used in the 1980s to describe technologies that allowed foreign genes to be incorporated and expressed in organisms that were not closely related. Biotechnology in this sense was a significant development in plant science because previously genes could only be incorporated through sexual crossing between relatively close relatives within the same genus. Thus biotechnology enabled genes to be systematically recruited from diverse plant species or even other organisms for expression in crop plants.

Many students are falsely under the impression that most of the vegetables they eat are transgenic. While it is technologically possible to transform most vegetables with genes from outside the Genus using ballistics, Agrobacterium, or other biotechnologies, the reality is that few of the commercial vegetable crops sold in the US are transgenic. At this time, there are many more transgenic agronomic crops than vegetable crops. What then is limiting the development and use of transgenic vegetables? Basically it is an issue of consumer acceptance. As consumers become more comfortable with transgenic crops we will see more of them in the market place. Also, it is expensive to develop, test, and gain government approval for the use of transgenic crops. Many companies are unwilling to incur these costs until a time when consumers are more receptive to them. Acceptance of genetically engineered crops varies with country and European Union countries are probably the most resistant while China, Brazil, Australia and the US are among the more liberal.

Transgenic Vegetables

Some Definitions

Genetically modified:
Literally -- manipulating the genes of a living organism by any means. Often misused to describe organisms that were genetically modified using means other than traditional breeding.
Using restriction endonucleases and related technology to directly manipulate genes in living organisms.
Molecular biology:
The study of life processes, especially gene expression, on a molecular level.
Containing genes from another organism that were not transferred via sexual crossing.
Genetically transformed:
An organism that contains genes from another organism that were not transferred via sexual crossing.
Genetically engineered:
Genes are moved directly from one organism and expressed in another using one of several asexual gene transfer technologies e.g. Agrobacterium.

Are you eating genetically engineered (GE) food?

There are 12 different genetically engineered plants that have been approved for commercial production in the United States. A simple rule of thumb might be that any food containing ingredients from one of these 12 plants could be from a GE variety.

Experimentally most crop plants (both monocots and dicots) have be genetically transformed using ballistics or Agrobacterium, but only a handful have been approved for commercial production. It is easier to transform herbacious species than woody species.

Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States

The following GE crops are the only ones that have been approved for commercial production in the United States:

  • Soybeans
  • Corn
  • Canola
  • Cotton
  • Potato
  • Squash/Zucchini
  • Papaya
  • Tomato
  • Sugarbeets
  • Rice
  • Flax
  • Radicchio

Examples of Genetically Transformed Crops

  • Bt Alfalfa
  • Bt Eggplant
  • Virus Resistant Squash
  • Value Added Vegetables, including Monsanto's enhanced shelf-life tomato
  • Liberty (glufosinate) Link
  • Imidazolinone (IMI) tolerant-rice
  • Glyphosate (Roundup) resistance has been incorporated into soybeans, corn, wheat, sugar beets, lettuce, and potatoes.

Transgenic Crops

Frequently-cited estimates that 60% of the food products in the United States contain GE ingredients are due almost entirely to two crops: corn and soybeans. High adoption rates of GE cultivars plus the widespread distribution of corn- and soy-based ingredients in processed foods accounts for the vast majority of foods containing GE. To these, add foods containing oil from canola and cotton, and you cover nearly 100% of the GE plant ingredients in the American diet.


Cultivars of GE herbicide-tolerant soybeans are the most widely-adopted class of GE plants on the market today, accounting for an estimated 74% of the 2002 soybean crop. Soybean-based ingredients -- including oil, flour, lecithin, and protein extracts -- are added to a wide array of processed foods.


In the year 2002, about 32% of the field corn crop in the United States was grown to genetically engineered corn hybrids. Because GE corn is not separated from non-GE corn by growers and processors, and because many food ingredients are corn-based, GE corn is likely to be present in most processed foods. GE sweet corn -- sold as fresh ears -- is much less prevalent (3-5%). It is very unlikely that canned sweet corn or popcorn are GE.


The United States imports most of its canola oil from Canada, where over 60% of rapeseed (the plant from which canola oil is extracted) are GE varieties. Canola oil is used in a wide array of products, including vegetable cooking oils, salad dressings, margarines, processed cheese, "non-dairy" products, chips, fried foods, cookies, pastries, chocolates, candy coatings, confections, cosmetics, soaps and detergents.


GE cotton cultivars now account for 71% of the total 2002 cotton crop. Although cotton is used more for textiles than foods, cottonseed oil may be present in a variety of products, including cooking oils, salad dressing, peanut butter, chips, crackers, cookies, and pastry crusts.


Are you eating GE versions of potato? Probably not. At their peak, GE potato varieties amounted to no more than 2-3% of the potato market in the United States. Due largely to poor sales, all GE potato varieties were discontinued by the developer in March of 2001 and since have not been sold to farmers for planting.

Bt and Virus Resistant Potatoes

Bt potatoes contain resistance to Colorado potato beetle. In 1997, approximately 50,000 acres were planted and in 2003 less than 5,000 were planted. Several virus-resistant potato cultivars have also been released.

Squash / Zucchini

Are you eating GE versions of squash? Possibly, but very unlikely. Several varieties of GE yellow crook-neck squash and green zucchini are marketed by Asgrow Vegetable Seed Co., but very few farmers are growing them.


Are you eating GE versions of papaya? Probably not. In the last few years, GE varieties have amounted to more than 50% of Hawaii's papaya production. But most United States papayas are imported from Brazil, Mexico, and the Caribbean (and not GE). Your chances are highest in Hawaii or the continental West Coast.


Are you eating GE versions of tomato? No. Although several GE tomatoes have been approved, only Calgene's FlavrSavr -- a financial flop that was only in a few markets from 1995 to 1997 -- has ever made it to consumers in the United States.

Sugarbeets or Garden Beets

Are you eating GE versions of beets? No. Two cultivars of GE sugarbeets have been approved in the United States, but they have never been planted commercially, primarily due to growers' concerns over international markets.


Are you eating GE versions of rice? No. Herbicide-tolerant GE rice was cleared for commercial production in 1999 and given FDA approval in 2000. Its developer, Aventis CropScience, has not yet marketed seeds to growers, and awaits EPA approval.


Whether we like it or not, genetically engineered crops are here to stay and will increase in numbers as they are more widely accepted. Leading producers and users include: the United States, Canada, Australia, China, Argentina, and Brazil.

For more information about containing gene flow from transgenic crops and evaluating the risks caused by producing transgenic crops, please read these articles from California Agriculture.

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