Why are Mutagenesis and Cell Fusion Acceptable in USDA Organic Seed Production?

February 25, 2014 in Columnists, Dave Hodges by The Manimal

By Dave Hodges
Republic Broadcasting Network

love organics. Pure organic food is pesticide-free, genetic engineering (GMO)-free, and healthy. It even tastes better due to the lack of chemical pesticide residue, and quite frankly, I really don’t want to eat anything else. But how can we be sure that what we are getting is really organic in the way that we expect it to be?

My garden grows heirloom veggies, and the only pesticide I will use is diatomaceous earth. There is no artificial seed tampering, no mucking around with genetics in a lab, no fluoridated water and absolutely no artificial fertilizers. I consider it organic. I trust the seeds that I gather and the methods that I use to grow them. But can this be said for the USDA’s Certified Organics program?

Let’s just take a look at two seed production methods allowed in the USDA program – Cell Fusion and Mutagenesis.

Cell Fusion

Cell fusion technology is currently being used extensively in the production of both organic and conventional foods.

Cell fusion is accomplished by combining the material from two different cells through either chemical (enzymes) or electrical stimulation. You are breaking down cell walls and intermingling material to see what comes out.


So, as long as you combine the cells of different types of the same vegetable such as two different types of broccoli through electrical stimulation or by chemicals in order to produce a seed that has a targeted trait, that is acceptable to the USDA National Organics Program (NOP).

“…the NOP further concludes that cell fusion (including protoplast fusion) is not considered an excluded method when the donor cells/protoplasts fall within the same taxonomic plant family, and when donor or recipient organisms are not derived using techniques of recombinant DNA technology.”



Mutagenesis creates a mutation in the plant cell through the application of radiation or toxic chemicals to the seed itself.

Mutation breeding is the process of exposing seeds to chemicals or radiation in order to generate mutants with desirable traits to be bred with other cultivars. Plants created using mutagenesis are sometimes called mutagenic plants or mutagenic seeds. From 1930–2007 more than 2540 mutagenic plant varietals have been released that have been derived either as direct mutants (70%) or from their progeny (30%). Crop plants account for 75% of released mutagenic species with the remaining 25% ornamentals or decorative plants. However, it is unclear how many of these varieties are currently used in agriculture or horticulture around the world, as these seeds are not always identified or labeled as being mutagenic or having a mutagenic provenance.


There are different kinds of mutagenic breeding such as using chemical mutagens like EMS and DMSradiation and transposons are used to generate mutants. Mutation breeding is commonly used to produce traits in crops such as larger seeds, new colors, or sweeter fruits that either cannot be found in nature or have been lost during evolution.


EMS, a chemical mutagen, is highly toxic:

EMS mutagenesis

WARNING: EMS is a powerful mutagen and a suspected carcinogen. Wear gloves and work in fume hood. Use disposable plastic ware and inactivate mutagen before disposal as outlined below.


A good example of how chemical mutagenesis can be used to create certain traits is Clearfield wheat:

In 2003 BASF, the chemical company, introduced Clearfield wheat, which is tolerant to their proprietary herbicide Beyond, much like Roundup Ready Corn is tolerant of glyphosate. They proudly proclaim that the wheat is not the product of genetic engineering, but of “enhanced traditional plant breeding” methods. What, exactly, are these enhanced methods that allows a plant to resist a persistent herbicide?

The technique is called “chemical mutagenesis” and might be worse than GMO engineering. Using a highly toxic chemical – sodium azide – as well as gamma and x-ray radiation, the exposed wheat embryo mutates. After further experimentation, testing and development, Clearfield wheat emerges and is tolerant of the Beyond herbicide. Clearfield is now supplied in 20 varieties and nearly a million acres are planted with it in the US and Canada.


So, according to the USDA NOP, it is perfectly okay to irradiate or chemically bathe seeds with toxic, carcinogenic substances to produce mutations and still call them organic. Unacceptable.

Mutagenes is (treatment of plants with radiation or chemicals to induce random mutation) is considered part of traditional breeding programs.


My Solution

I have purchased, traded for, and saved organic heirloom seeds. These are seeds that have undergone absolutely no chemical or radiation treatments. The seeds gathered from subsequent plants are viable and you can save them for next year’s planting and get a crop that is basically the same as the parent crop.

When saving seed, always harvest from the best. Choose disease-free plants with qualities you desire. Look for the most flavorful vegetables or beautiful flowers. Consider size, harvest time and other characteristics.


By choosing from the best each season, you encourage the traits that you desire. This is the natural way. It is considerably more time consuming than simply changing the genetics via radiation and chemicals, but in my opinion, it is the way to go. This is true organic cultivation.

So, the bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter to me if it is labeled ‘USDA Certified Organic’ or not. If it has been irradiated, chemically bathed with toxic, carcinogenic chemicals and mutated to within an inch of its life, it is not truly organic. What’s next? GMO Organic Made by Monsanto and stamped with the USDA Certified Organic seal of approval?