Her darkened complexion and calloused hands reveal a great affinity to working the land. Once I discovered her wrestling with a piece of wire mesh to build a domed cover for her lettuce stock. Sweet faced and kind – you trust her on sight.

Long before she became an organic farmer, Cathy McKeown traveled to Madras, in the South of India, where she met T.C. Singh, a botanist at Annamalai University. A trip meant to emulate the spiritual meanderings of John, Paul, George, and Ringo…Singh’s work would forever change the life of this native West Virginian.

Singh’s work revolved around an aquatic plant with transport leaves called Hydrilla Verticillata. He conducted experiments that placed an electrically tuned fork six feet from the Hydrilla and determined whether or not the streaming of protoplasm could be affected by sound. Singh hypothesized that the protoplasm in this jiggy-er version of Audrey II, would stream at a higher frequency than plants in the control group (as a result of the tuning fork). Using a violinist and a flutist, Singh played Indian ragas and classical rhapsodies.

Results included: a 66 per cent increase in the number of stomata per unit area, thickened epidermal walls, palisade cells were larger and broader, and overall, 77 per cent more leafing occurred.

Singh stated that he had “proven beyond any shadow of doubt that harmonic sound waves affect the growth, flowering, fruiting, and seed-yields of plants. He explained that in his laboratories he could visually demonstrate that the fundamental metabolic processes of plants in relation to transpiration and carbon assimilation under the excitation of musical sound or rhythmic beat were very much accelerated and increased over 200 per cent compared to controls.”

Although these experiments had the great potential to be cast aside as pseudo-science, his work had profound influence on McKeown who returned to Canada with a new resolve. “I suddenly became interested in plants, their origins, and the cultivation of crops,” said McKeown who moved to British Columbia and purchased a plot of land in the fertile Hatzic Prairie. Here she setup a small stand to sell her produce to the local community. Nowadays McKeown’s primary quarrel is in “determining the organic authenticity and GMO content of foods in her imported products and those found in most major department chains.” Although the testing itself is both costly and limited to laboratories or private companies with the facilities, this hasn’t prevented her adhering to strict protocol and guidelines.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) are molecular trends that have developed over the past couple of decades, to clone genes and transform or transfer them into living organisms – including plants and animals.

If we look at plants specifically, particular genes have been identified, cloned and transferred into particular parental lines that have then been used as gene donors or carriers in breeding programs.

Afterwards, new lines or parental lines are then used in the development and production of GMO’s that are then purchased by farmers and used for production of grain or plants for use in animal or human feed or food. People like McKeown are concerned as to whether these GMO products are safe in the animal and human food chain.

Organic farmers, breeders, researchers, seed companies, fish hatcheries, and ranchers all stand to benefit from molecular genetic screening using either protein or DNA based technology.

The testing process is quite simple really. At the present time, there are essentially two laboratory methods being used to verify the presence of GMO’s and they can be summarized into three basic steps: DNA extraction, PCR amplification of the sample DNA, and electrophoretic analysis of PCR products. All three phases are critical to the outcome, reliability, and sensitivity of the assay (given they also include proper controls that determine reliability).

The second method is Enzyme-Linked Immunosobent Assay (ELISA). In this case specific interactions between antibodies and antigens are used to measure a variety of substances. The key reagents in ELISA are the antibodies. Antibodies are the soluble proteins produced by the immune system in response to infection by a foreign substance. Foreign substances are the antigen. When a GMO is detected, the antigen is the newly synthesized protein.

Overall, and given that appropriate protocols, samples, and sample sizes are used, false positive or false negative results are extremely rare events.

This brings immense comfort to people like McKeown.

The pang she feels comes not from trepidation over potential contamination but from seeing her land produce an organic bounty, free of GMO’s. “I still get a quickness of the heart when I shake the dirt loose from the roots of a beet.” It’s a long friendship…like the sign that you see when you step to her front entrance that reads: Anamchara…Irish for soul friend.

Tompkins and Bird, The Secret Life of Plants, 1972

(Image by Jane Wang)