The Safe Seed Pledge is not for me

Yesterday, a prospective customer asked if we have taken the “Safe Seed Pledge.”  I vaguely recognized this term, but I don’t think that I’ve ever actually read it before.  It is a short, two paragraph statement that appears to have been produced by the Council for Responsible Genetics.

 If you have never seen it before, here is what it says:

Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative,

We pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.

The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political, and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities.

What follows is from my email response to the customer:

In general, I am kind of allergic to oaths and pledges and anything that requires me to join and drink the Coolaid.

There is a lot of ideological stuff in there that I don’t necessarily agree with.  I don’t necessarily disagree with it either, but it depends on context.  What does “genetically stable” mean in this context?  As a plant breeder, I am not interested exclusively in stability.  For that matter, a genetic engineer is overwhelmingly interested in stability; as a rule, they want crops that look like they came off an assembly line.  Beyond that, “stability” is a meaningless term in genetics, unless you define it clearly.  At the genetic level, nothing is really all that stable.  Even clones change with every generation.

The second paragraph requires a lot of philosophical alignment that just isn’t going to happen.  I can only agree or disagree with those statements on a case by case basis.  I’m not opposed to genetic engineering in all cases, although I am generally dismayed by the fact that the most significant agricultural applications so far have involved making plants less vulnerable to industrial toxins.

Despite that, I can agree with the meat of the pledge, which is this:

We pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.

Perhaps they should have left it at that.

Of course, that’s an easy one.  It is true of just about every garden seed company that exists.  GM seeds come with a contract.  Nobody slips them to you when Monsanto isn’t looking.  There is a lot of fear generated about this in the garden seed industry for marketing purposes.

And, for that matter, I’m not sure that this protects you.  Is a plant that has been unintentionally pollinated by a GM variety “genetically engineered ?”  I’ll bet that you could get a number of different opinions on that.

So, I won’t be taking this pledge, but I can assure you that we don’t sell any genetically engineered varieties and that we’re so far away from farming areas that there is basically no possibility of cross-pollination from genetically engineered varieties.  (Not to mention that almost none of the crops that we sell, save potato, have any GM varieties anyway.)  We’re doing conventional breeding; that is where our interests lie and that’s not going to change.

And, if you want to, you can consider that my pledge.

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