GMOs and Purple Tomatoes

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I used to always say (and in fact, I wrote this in my most recent Self-Reliance Magazine article) that there were no GMO (bioengineered) seeds being sold to consumers - that only commercial farmers have access to them. Well, about a week ago, I discovered that has changed. 

The first GMO (bioengineered) seed sold to consumers, via Norfolk Healthy Produce.

Norfolk Plant Sciences apparently spent 20 years trying to insert the DNA of a dark purple snapdragon flower into a garden tomato they dubbed "The Purple Tomato." Now anyone can pay $20 for 10 seeds for a deep purple tomato that is touted as being high in anthocyanin, a type of antioxidant found naturally in eggplants and blueberries. Basically, Norfolk wanted to make a cool-looking tomato so "Americans [would] change their perceptions of GMO foods." Polls show most people agree bioengineered food is a bad idea, but Norfolk is striving to change that.

While inserting a flower's genes into a tomato may not exactly seem evil, bioengineering and gene editing don't stop there. Microorganism, insect, and even mammalian genes are being used - something that would never happen without human intervention. Mankind does not have a great history of messing with nature; there always are unintended consequences that we don't discover until later. (One has already popped up: Bioengineered crops creating weeds that are resistant to herbicides.)

My biggest concern, as I stated on Facebook, is that we may quickly lose our access to pure seeds. We already know commercial bioengineered crops are cross-pollinating with non-GMO plants all over the United States. Now imagine bioengineered plants in home gardens. The risk of cross-pollination and GMO contamination is much, much higher.

Baker Creek's 2024 catalog.

Then yesterday, Baker Creek Seeds, a business whose success can largely be attributed to their styling themselves as the source for non-GMO, heirloom seeds, made a terrible announcement. The purple tomato they featured on their 2024 catalog cover, the purple tomato they were pushing heavily in their marketing, the tomato they called "Purple Galaxy," was being pulled from sale.

Apparently, Norfolk caught wind of Purple Galaxy and contacted Baker Creek to say something along the lines of: That looks a lot like our Purple Tomato. We think you're violating our patent.

Baker Creek, in their announcement about this matter (which you can read in full at the bottom of this post), told a long story about how they found Purple Galaxy through a European plant breeder known for collecting rare tomato seeds. Apparently, this person lives in a country where bioengineering is banned and it took years for him to achieve a true purple tomato. When he was done, Baker Creek sent samples of the tomato to a European lab to be tested. Purple Galaxy "did not contain the two genetic markers" they used to test for GMO contamination, Baker Creek says.

Baker Creek further states that even after Purple Galaxy was offered in their 2024 catalog, they continued to run tests (which is interesting in and of itself) - and some of these tests were "inconclusive." After Norfolk contacted Baker Creek, they did additional testing, which "did not conclusively establish that the Purple Galaxy is truly free of any genetically-modified material."

While I applaud Baker Creek for their transparency, there are still a lot of unanswered questions here. Foremost in my mind is this: How can testing for GMO contamination be "inconclusive?" In fact, I asked Baker Creek this question; they haven't yet answered. (To be fair, they are probably inundated with questions right now.) If, indeed, Purple Galaxy is bioengineered or is GMO contaminated, how did that happen? How could it possibly have happened accidentally in a country where bioengineered food is banned? Was Baker Creek - the most famous non-GMO seed supplier - targeted and duped on purpose?

And the hardest question of all: If Baker Creek, who bothered to test their seed to check for GMO contamination, got duped, have other seed companies, not known for running such tests, been duped, too? 

How bad is GMO contamination already?

If you are as concerned about this as I am, your first thought may be: "Time to save all my own seeds." But, friends, it isn't that simple. For example, corn is typically thought safe from cross-pollination if it is 250 feet away from other varieties of corn, but there are cases where GMO contamination has been found in corn grown that far away or further. To be really, truly, sure there's no unwanted cross-pollination from wind, insects, or other pollinators, you have to cover each plant with fabric that wind, insects, and animals can't penetrate, and then hand pollinate.

That said, I do encourage you to save your own seed as much as possible, and to help you do so, I recommend the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Here, you'll learn techniques for saving pure seed, plus details on correctly harvesting seed from every type of vegetable.


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