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    Everything Wrong with the “GMO” Label Is Found in This Blueberry Tree

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Blueberries grow on bushes. Whatever. I don’t care if they grow on bushes or on trees or underground or are skimmed from the surface of fetid water, but bushes are what most of us would consider natural or “as intended” by the naturalness of evolution, which is the most natural thing. That’s the ideological pole of the post-science green movement, an appeal to naturalness uber alles or naturalness as crippled “other” to technology’s absolute disruption of a greater Way Things Should Be. And so we have blueberry bushes because … evolution made them that way. So: natural.

    Lost on most of the ideological green movement (the one that loathes/fears radiation and biotechnology more than mountaintop removal or forest clear-cutting) is the basic property of evolution as being based on failure and slight success. Evolution has yet to create an ideal anything or even, empirically speaking, a very good anything, no matter how much it can look like it from the lofty perch of technological homo sampiens. Viruses are pretty great, and cockroaches. We manipulate electricity. Humanity is the lofty perch that enables the perspective of evolution as a miracle machine delivering awesome final products that are in near supernatural harmony with other things, rather than competition with them.

    OSU/Lynn Ketchum

    It’s that perspective that allows us to look at the blueberry bush in situ as the most excellent and chosen blueberry bush rather than the result of a whole bunch of random mutations that’s just getting by. The latter is more accurate in terms of evolutionary history/principle and it should shade how we view the direct human influence on the properties of that blueberry bush. (We'd like to imagine that blueberry bush as having arrived to this place now unaided, but the truth of that is for another post.) Now, thanks to research underway at Oregon State University, we are presented with a blueberry tree. Blueberries are going for the sky. The tree was not created via modification at the genetic level, either by adding or silencing parts of genes, but via a technique commonly used in hybridization programs for trees: root grafting.

    Root grafting is very much what it sounds. You take some roots—the rootstock—of one kind of plant, and take the plant whose traits you want, the “scion” in horticulture jargon, and stick a cut end of the plant on a cut end of the rootstock (to generalize). They’ll grow together, and whoosh, you have a new plant. This is, according to the USDA, a legit organic technique to make a new kind of plant and plants made this way—apple varieties in particular—are common. The resulting hybrid organism is then likely to be patented by whichever university or biotech firm came up with it. Jazz apples are patented by a biotech firm in New Zealand; Honeycrisps formerly were patented by the University of Minnesota; Pink Ladies are owned by the government of Western Australia. None of them are classified as GMOs.

    The basic idea with OSU’s blueberry trees is that there is one wild blueberry variety that grows in a very tall single stalk, but it has crappy, seedy sour berries. Now, by grafting on some new shoot of a more-tasty blueberry, we can have the tall, single-stalked tree of the one variety, but with good-tasting blueberries. The advantage for growers is in that harvests from multi-stalk blueberry bushes result in up to 25 percent waste because the berries are falling from too many places to catch ‘em all. Harvesting from blueberry trees should cut down this waste by a good enough margin that blueberry growers will pay OSU some amount of money to be able to grow the copyrighted trees. The wild variety has a few other benefits, like being adapted to a wider range of soil pHs and having the ability to handle nutrient-poor soils. Theoretically, that opens up more farmland.

    The “tree” here isn’t a GMO; it falls under the banner of hybridization, which has been deemed a safe, organic space by those under the thumb of agriculture ideologies. The new crop will have to prove nothing at all to the USDA or FDA as far as safety to consumers or to other crops, while one single gene being silenced in a plant brings down the full years-long approval process hammer, to say little of the bad publicity.

    The Arctic apple, now under full assault from fake green, cringingly wrong fear blogs, is a funny example. (I'm working on a bigger thing just on Arctic apples, so please stay tuned.) It has a single silenced gene, yet has had straight hell brought down on it from the various apple growers associations in addition to spending most of the past year trying to justify itself to the USDA and waiting for an FDA decision on the safety of the new product. Meanwhile, nearly every apple you see in the grocery store is the product of biotechnology. All apple hybridization comes via grafting like that in our blueberry tree: the fruit version of a body receiving a new head. Which is just fine, of course: so long as the genes weren't directly tweaked, the blueberry tree is as natural as, dunno, the marine creepers hanging around deep sea vents.