While summer may be over, the growing season is not! Fall is a time of the year that farmers everywhere grow bounties of insta-worthy squash, pumpkins, and other fall-harvest crops. What’s the key to this season of abundance? Pollination.

In order for flowering plant species to create seeds and reproduce, they must transfer pollen from one plant to another. This incredible process involves a number of biological and environmental factors, and can have tremendous impacts on our food supply when manipulated.

One not-so-spectacular impact that I recently learned about? Contamination of non-GMO crops through cross-pollination. As of 2013, almost 400 incidents across 63 countries of GMO contamination have been recorded (Journal of Food Contamination). Some of these incidents have had far-reaching impacts on the economy (Reuters)(Washington Post)(NPR), and all have threatened the quality of our food supply and the livelihood of pollinators such as butterflies and bees. Needless to say, these facts stung when I learned of them!

Before I decided to go all “angry wasp hive” on the world, I decided to get some more facts. I was surprised to learn that there are some simple actions I can take in my everyday life to make a difference!  

What exactly is cross-pollination?

Cross-pollination, also called allogamy, involves the movement of pollen from one flowering plant to another. This does not include self-pollination, which is when pollen moves between parts of the same plant. Cross-pollination happens through pollinators and through the wind (sometimes called pollen drift), which can lead to cross-contamination when it involves GMO and non-GMO plants.

Cross-contamination typically occurs when pollen from a farmer’s genetically modified crops is carried over to neighboring non-GMO fields. The most commonly impacted crop from cross-contamination is corn, because it’s a monoecious crop with male and female flowers formed in separate parts of the same plant, leading to a high degree of cross-pollination.

Contamination via cross-pollination doesn’t just impact non-GMO crops, but organic crops as well. As many as one-third of organic corn loads test positive for GMOs at a low level. Similar problems with soy are becoming more common (Non-GMO Report). The Non-GMO Project verification process includes segregation and traceability measures and ongoing testing for major GMO high-risk ingredients, such as corn and soy, to ensure that products are truly non-GMO.

What does this mean for the bees and butterflies?

Cross-contamination from GMO crops threatens the pollinators that play a critical role in the ability of our environment to function. Over 80% of all GMO crops grown worldwide are engineered to resist herbicides, many of which are linked to insect decline. Researchers from Iowa State University found that Monarch butterfly caterpillars were seven times more likely to die when they ate milkweed plants carrying transgenic pollen from genetically engineered corn, compared to conventional corn (Oecologia). Bees have also been greatly impacted by transgenic pollen. Bee colony collapse disorder, a disease that has resulted in colony losses of 30 to 90 percent each year, has been attributed to the rise in genetically engineered crops (Living Non-GMO).

What can I do about it?

Obviously, there’s no way I can stop the wind from blowing or stop pollinators from doing their thing – and I don’t want to. Letting nature do its job is the best way to ensure a healthy environment and a safe food supply. So what can I do about GMO cross-contamination? Voting with my wallet by purchasing Non-GMO Project Verified products is a critical part of shifting the supply chain to go non-GMO so that GMO contamination can be prevented in the first place. I can also encourage my community’s farmers to get educated on how to avoid GMO contamination.

Want to go a step further? The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Agency (APHIS), a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, is responsible for “regulating GMOs that pose a risk to plants and the environment” through the federal Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. Tell them how important it is to have stringent regulations to prevent contamination of the non-GMO food supply.

So while I watch the bees and butterflies do their thing, I am reminded that choosing to avoid GMOs is about more than just my food – it’s about protecting the environmental health and ecological harmony so vital to our planet.

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