The Difference Between HEIRLOOM, HYBRID & GMO SEEDS
When getting ready to sow your garden, it’s important to understand the differences between available seeds:
Hybrid Seeds are produced by cross-pollinating plants for the purpose of improving the characteristics of the new hybrid plant – i.e., better yield, greater uniformity, improved color, disease resistance, and so on.
Pros: Hybrid seeds are widely used in both industrialized agriculture and home gardens so they’re easy to find. They do, in fact, produce a high yield of uniform crops.
Cons: Hybrid seeds can’t be saved because the seed from the first generation of hybrid plants does not reliably produce true reproductions of the original plant. So new seeds must be bought every year, which can get expensive. There is also a homogeny of taste, which can get boring if you enjoy diversity (heirlooms offer more varieties and therefore more flavors).
Heirloom Seeds grow “true to type,” producing plants like the parents from seed. These are seeds that were commonly grown in bygone days (pre-dating the 1950s), but then fell out of favor as gardeners of the 1950s rushed to try the “new and improved” hybrid seeds. Because hybrid seeds were selected for their productivity, and their ability to withstand mechanical picking and cross-country shipping, rather than for their flavor, heirloom gardening can be seen as a reaction against this trend.
Pros: Heirloom seeds offer a much greater selection of plants from which to choose. They also contribute to increasing the available gene pool for a particular plant for future generations. Some gardeners choose heirloom plants because of an interest in history and/or traditional organic gardening. Some gardeners prefer them for their unique tastes. Typically, heirlooms have adapted over time to whatever climate and soil they’re grown in, so they are often resistant to local pests, diseases, and extremes of weather. (I have certainly found this to be true.)
Cons: Some heirlooms may not be as hardy or disease resistant as hybrids. This will be noted in the seed catalog. If you stay away from those plants, there aren’t any cons for the backyard gardener.
GMO Seeds are not something you will likely encounter in your backyard organic garden, but a discussion of seeds would not be complete without mention of GMOs, which are particularly controversial. GMO seeds also directly relate to climate change, as drought-resistant GMO seeds are already being touted as an answer
to global warming.GMO stands for “genetically modified organism” because GMO seeds use recombinant DNA technology. Not surprisingly, the use of GMOs has sparked significant controversy. Some see this as dangerous meddling with biological processes that have naturally evolved over long periods of time. Others are concerned about the limitations of modern science to fully comprehend all of the potential negative ramifications of genetic manipulation. Some farmers find it very disconcerting that their bag of seeds is labeled hazardous and requires the use of rubber gloves to handle because of the pesticides spliced into the seeds.
If nothing else, GMOs are not natural. In the case of genetically modified Bt corn, its DNA is equipped with a gene from soil bacteria called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that produces the Bt-toxin. It’s a pesticide; it breaks open the stomach of certain insects and kills them. When approved by the FDA, this Bt-toxin was not thought to survive in humans. But just this year, doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found the corn’s Bt-toxin in the blood of pregnant women and their babies, as well as in non-pregnant women.
Specifically, the toxin was identified in 93% of 30 pregnant women, 80% of umbilical blood in their babies, and 67% of 39 non-pregnant women. The study has been accepted for publication in the peer reviewed journal Reproductive Toxicology and has broad implications.
Pros: From an organic gardening perspective, there are no pros to using GMO seeds.
Cons: Non-GMO crops can be cross-pollinated from genetically altered plants from up to 13 miles away! This could be the beginning of a death-nell for biodiversity. To be fair to the other side, GMO proponents point out that outcrossing (as this process is known) happens with any new open-pollinated crop variety—newly introduced traits can potentially cross out into neighboring crop plants of the same species and, in some cases, to closely related wild relatives.
In a nutshell, hybrid seeds are great for the commercial and hobby gardeners who aren’t interested in saving
seeds. Heirloom seeds are preferred by the more serious gardeners who wish to become independent of other growers for his/her seeds and therefore food source. For the new gardener starting out, you really can’t go wrong with either hybrid or heirloom seeds.
Recommended online sources for seeds
• Fedco — www.fedcoseeds.com
• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds — rareseeds.com
• Living Seed Company — livingseedcompany.com/livingseed/welcome.html
• Seeds of Change — www.seedsofchange.com
• Good Seed Company — www.goodseedsco.net
• Territorial Seed — www.territorialseed.com
Recommended Resources for Learning About GMOs
• Genetic Roulette (the movie)
• Seeds of Deception (book)
Special thanks to Karen Shanley, who is also a contributor of New Homesteading Magazine.