Hybrids and open-pollinated seeds are THE two types of seeds.
Open-pollinated seeds are seeds as nature created them, and they have existed since plants began. OP plants are simply varieties that are capable of producing seeds that will produce seedlings just like the parent plant.
If the open-pollinated seed existed many years ago it can also be considered an heirloom. Many gardeners consider 1951 to be the latest year a plant can have originated and still be called an heirloom, since that year marked the widespread introduction of the first hybrid varieties. Another way of defining heirloom seeds is to use the definition of the word “heirloom” in its truest sense. Under this interpretation, a true heirloom is a cultivar that has been nurtured, selected, and handed down from one family member to another for many generations.
Heirloom growers have different motivations. Some people grow heirlooms for historical interest, while others want to increase the available gene pool for a particular plant for future generations. Some select heirloom plants due to an interest in traditional organic gardening. Many simply want to taste the different varieties of vegetables, or see whether they can grow a rare variety of plant.
Hybrid seeds are created by plant breeders by cross breeding two compatible types of plants. They do this to create a plant with the best features of both parents. Since hybrid seeds are relatively new crosses, they are not stable. This means that the seeds from the hybrid plant will not create an identical plant. Seeds from the hybrid plants revert to the quality of one of the parents. Seed saving becomes a crapshoot with hybrids.
Genetically modified organism seeds (GMO) are seeds that are genetically altered using molecular genetic techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering.
GMOs are not the result of traditional plant breeding, but of procedures in a laboratory. Instead of using pollen from another plant, technicians can insert genes that don’t even come from plants—some have come from a bacteria or a fish. Often, viruses are used to insert the desired gene. The main GMO crops are corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, cotton, and zucchini squash. GMO seeds are mostly sold to big agribusiness farms who sign a contract with the GMO company. The primary danger to home gardens is not from the seeds we buy (GMO seeds are not sold in the home garden packet trade–they are too expensive.) The real concern is pollen in the air and the food at the store, which tends to have GMO ingredients if it is processed and not certified Organic
One example of a GMO seeds is a corn seed that is bred to include the Bt pesticide in its genetic makeup to make it resistant to pests. Bt is a natural pesticide, but it would never be in the seed naturally.
Two areas of concern I find with GMOs:
One of the most common traits introduced into GE crops is to make them resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which is the primary weed-killer in Monsanto’s Roundup product. This has led to more and more farmers relying on so-called “Roundup Ready” crops to make it easier to control weeds. Fewer weeds means healthier plants and potentially bigger yields. But growers have come to rely on glyphosate so much that weeds are becoming resistant to it. “There’s definitely been a rise in glyphosate-resistant weeds,” said OSU weed researcher Carol Mallory-Smith. She’s a leader in her field and says herbicide resistance is a serious concern. As more and more acres of American farmland begin to have herbicide-resistant weeds, controlling those weeds becomes more complex. Farmers may have to spray a wider variety of herbicides to kill weeds or regularly till their land, which can lead to agricultural runoff that is harmful to rivers and streams. Mallory-Smith criticizes the GE crop industry’s response to herbicide-resistant weeds, which has been to seek approval for new GE traits that would allow plants to survive more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D and dicamba. A 2012 study by Washington State University found that “heightened risk of public health impacts can be expected” if crops resistant to more types of herbicides come on the market.
Another environmental issue raised by GE opponents is traditional crops becoming contaminated by pollen from GE crops. Scientists call this gene flow, and it does happen. It’s a particularly problematic issue for specialty seed growers in Oregon, who often sell to markets in Asia that want absolutely no GE traits in their products. “This is a trade issue, not an ‘I don’t like Monsanto’ issue,” Morton said.
These two statements are part of this Oregon Public Broadcasting news analysis prior to Oregon’s GMO labeling measure in the fall of 2014.
Safe Seed Pledge
If you choose to avoid buying GMO seeds, look for a seed company that has agreed to the Safe Seed Pledge. It is as follows:
Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners, and consumers who want an alternative,
We pledge that we do not knowingly buy, sell, or trade genetically-engineered seeds or plants.
The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families, or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political, and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing are necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically-engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems, and ultimately healthy people and communities.
The Safe Seed Pledged was developed by The Council for Responsible Genetics. On their website is a list of companies that have signed the pledge.