Another common question we’ve gotten is if our Kava is genetically modified. The short answer is “No”, Kali Kava™ is no more genetically modified than any other Kava that has come before it. We aren’t “Playing God” (creating a new species), we’re not Monsanto (genetically engineering), and we’re not creating Frankenstein Kava with werewolf DNA in it (transgenic organism). We’ve simply done what every other kava culture has done before us – We’ve introduced kava into a new environment, allowed it to adapt and selected for favorable mutations over generations.
It is good to have this discussion because it opens the door for a better understanding of the differences between the terms “Genetically Modified” and “Transgenic Organism” and “Genetic Engineered” and how they apply to plants, including Kava.
First and foremost, it should be understood that the Kava plant as we know it, is a human invention. It was created by humans in Northern Vanuatu some 3,000 years ago through a slow process of breeding and backcrossing with its ancestral plants until it became its own polyploid, sterile species. Thereafter, somatic mutants that presented desirable traits were selected and propagated and this is how we’ve arrived at the narrow genetic diversity of varieties of kava that was have today. This story is not unique to Kava; there are many examples of food crops such as corn, potatoes, among others, that possess genetics so drastically altered by human migrations and selection processes, that they bear little resemblance to their original genetic ancestors.
There is consensus on the origin of Kava being Northern Vanuatu and that it was created by humans. Therefore, Kava is not a native to any of the Pacific Islands where it grows, from Vanuatu to Hawaii and everywhere in between. All Kava varieties found throughout the South Pacific are Vanuatu varieties that either mutated by adapting to new environments, or were chosen by chance somatic mutation. Either way, humans continued to genetically modify Kava by forcing the plant to adapt to new environments, and by propagating the favorable somatic mutations that were observed.
So far, we’ve established that 1. Kava is a man made species. 2. Humans have genetically modified kava since they created it. 3. Kava is not a native species to any of the islands that it grows.
From a geneticists standpoint, the term “Genetically Modified” simply means the modification of the genetic material of an organism. This is a heritable form of mutation, which usually has a causable agent such as chemical, radiation, fire, and even human or animal selection. This differs significantly from an engineered “Transgenic Organism”, which typically inserts or moves genes from an organism that don’t already exist in the genome. This process can be natural or intentional. For example, it is difficult to trace the true origins of sweet potatoes because its genome was naturally GMO’ed by genes inserted by a naturally occurring agrobacterium some 8,000 years ago. People have been eating GMO sweet potatoes for thousands of years and never realized it! “Genetically Engineered” differs from both of these definitions in that it refers to the direct artificial modification of an organisms DNA using bio-technology.
To sum this up the term “Genetically Modified” simply means that the heritable DNA of a plant has changed from its ancestral plant either by natural or unnatural processes. Kava is by definition, a GMO crop due to the role of human selection in its evolution. The common use of GMO, differs from “Transgenic” which means that an organism contains the genes from another plant or animal that is not already present in the ancestral plant. “Genetically Engineered” differs from both of these definitions in that it refers to the direct artificial modification or recombination of an organisms DNA using bio-technology.
So is Kali Kava™ GMO? No more so than any other variety of Kava. Is it Transgenic? No, Kali Kava™ does not contain any genes from other plants or animals. Is it Genetically Engineered? No. Kali Kava™ is simply the next progression in Kava’s journey from its origins in Vanuatu, throughout the Pacific Islands, and its end point is here in California. Like all other environments that kava has found itself in before, it continues to adapt to its new environment and change. We’ve introduced Kava to its new environment and selected for desirable traits in the exact same manner that all previous Kava stewards have done before this point in Kava’s history.