Let’s learn some lingo, real quick. There are some buzzword-y things that go on seed packets, a lot of which we just smile and nod at because, yes we’ve heard those words before, and if it sounds science-y and not natural-y it’s probably bad, right?
Let’s shut down that sort of thinking right now. This blog is a hearsay-free zone. No, we’re going to do the work to understand these concepts, not just be influenced by vague notions we’ve heard.
So without further ado, going head-to-head in ring tonight are:
Open-pollinated/Heirlooms Vs. Hybrids
Open-pollinated: When a parent plant self-pollinates or is pollinated by another plant of the same variety, the next generation will be similar to the parent plant. This is how pollination happens naturally, with no human intervention.
Heirlooms: are just open-pollinated varieties that can be traced back a long time (like 50+ years).
Hybrids: Humans intervene in the pollination/breeding process, selecting which plants to cross-pollinate. Think Gregor Mendel and his pea plants, if you’re familiar with that story from your High School Biology class. Essentially, you’re inbreeding the plants so that you get desirable phenotypes (how a gene expresses itself physically… let’s say a pink flower color instead of a purple flower color). Ultimately, hybrids WILL NOT have offspring that look like the parent. Hybrids are called “F1s” because that’s the nomenclature used in genetics to indicate the offspring of a cross-breeding; the “f” stands for filial, meaning “generation”, hence F1 is a 1st generation plant. So if you buy hybrid seeds, and you want to save your seeds from a F1 tomato, next year’s tomato isn’t going to look anything like the tomato you grew this year. It’ll still be a tomato and it might even taste good (or better!), but it’s not consistent. Another thing to note is that hybrids that make it to market usually have better yields (something known as hybrid vigor) and have better disease resistance. They are also typically more expensive because you’re paying for the labor to do all the cross-breeding and management, ensuring that nothing wild gets mixed in. Think buying a pure-bred dog versus adopting a mutt.
Main take away: Open-pollinated and hybrids each have their place. I opt for open-pollinated when I want to save my own seeds. I go for hybrids if I know I’ve got a problem that a hybrid can solve (say, tomatoes that won’t crack easily or beautiful flower colors). “Heirloom” is just a marketing ploy.
And since I can’t resist a good Biology meme, you’re welcome in advance for the following Gregor Mendel memes.
Non-GMO Vs. GMO
Non-GMO: Not a Genetically Modified Organism. Meaning, the DNA sequences of these varieties haven’t been manipulated in a lab (no gene insertions, deletions, or substitutions).
GMO: Genetically Modified Organism – a scientist in a lab somewhere has been fiddling with the DNA. Why would someone do that? Well, it turns out that scientists have found ways to change the DNA sequence that can result in a more desirable outcome, usually to make Big Agriculture easier, but sometimes for even GOOD, humanitarian reasons. For instance, adding DNA sequences that make the plant resistant to viruses (yes, plants can get viruses, too!). Or enabling a plant to secrete a substance that’s undesirable to a common pest. Or enhancing vitamin content so a staple food (like rice) can be more nutritious (this is a major public health win in the developing world).
So, overall, GMO is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to us consuming the plant (unlike pesticide use in non-organic growing methods). The problems with GMOs are primarily ecological and legal.
- Ecologically speaking, do we really know the full impact of messing with an organism’s genetic make-up? How might the changes we make impact soil conditions (nutrient uptake, water requirements) or other levels of the food web?
- Then there’s the question of genetic diversity. If every large agricultural outfit is using the same GMO seeds because they need their corn to be resistant to corn borers (an insect pest) for a profitable harvest, what happens when corn borers begin to adapt (which they inevitably will) and suddenly no one has seed that the corn borers aren’t adapted to? You’re up a creek without a paddle, or a corn, that’s what.
- Legally speaking, who owns the rights to those seeds? Many of the companies who create GMO seeds (you’ve probably heard names like Monsanto and Syngenta), make it illegal for farmers to save seeds from GMO plants they’ve grown. Due to these patent laws and other regulations, farmers are dependent on GMO developers to supply seeds, which can get expensive.
Main take away: GMO and non-GMO are buzzwords that don’t have a lot of bearing for the home gardener. I think it’s fine to plant GMO seeds, and see the benefit of their use in agriculture and public health applications. But it’s probably a better option to not put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, and maintain the supply (and demand) for non-GMO. For more on the GMO debate, check out this site!
Organic Vs. Non-Organic
Organic: No pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic pest or disease controls were used on the parent plants that produced your seeds.
Non-Organic: The parent plants that produced your seeds might have been sprayed.
Main take away: For seeds, organic vs. non-organic has very little bearing on the quality of the seeds themselves. You MIGHT WANT TO BE CONCERNED about whether your PRODUCE is organic or non-organic because you could be consuming whatever pesticides were sprayed on the plant. Plus, organic farming practices are gentler on the soil and larger ecosystem, which I think it worth promoting. If you want to get gung-ho and vote with your dollars to encourage organic practices in seed production, that’s fantastic. But ultimately, it’s less of a concern with seeds than with produce.
When it comes to seeds, a lot of these buzzwords are marketing ploys to appeal to different segments of consumers. However, if you’re fundamentally opposed to or in support of certain business practices or environmental justice issues, then dig in and pick your seeds according to your convictions.
Next Wednesday: All About Seeds – Part 3! Selecting Varieties for Planting