Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Heirlooms and GMOs and Hybrids, Oh My!

There is quite a debate going on these days about what means what in the seed world. In my experience, none of these terms means what it used to mean, especially in ‘advertising’. The same problems apply to the terms ‘organic’, ‘natural’, and ‘open-pollinated’.

OK, first things first. Here are the dictionary meanings of each of these words according to Miriam-Webster:
GMO ~ Genetically Modified Organism
Heirloom ~ A horticultural variety that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.
Hybrid ~ An offspring of two plants of different races, breeds, varieties, species, or genera.
Organic ~ Of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides.
Natural ~ Occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature.
Open-Pollinated ~ Pollinated by natural agencies (as wind or insects) without human intervention.

Now, since there is way too much involved, there is no way I can cover I in a blog post. So I will share with you a few links to assorted companies, organizations, and websites. Here’s what they feel about it all.

Here’s what Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has to say about it:
Open pollination is achieved by insects, birds, wind, or other natural mechanisms. The seeds of open-pollinated plants will produce new generations of those plants. One of the bigger challenges in maintaining a strain by open pollination is avoiding introduction of pollen from other strains. Based on how broadly the pollen for the plant tends to disperse, it can be controlled to varying degrees by greenhouses, tall wall enclosures, or field isolation. Popular examples of plants produced under open pollination conditions include the heirloom tomato. Baker Creek is using tent enclosures in its own gardens to house the plants. Bumble bees are then introduced to control the pollination. This prevents cross-pollination from undesirable sources, as well as preventing cross-pollination between strains.
Pure and Natural seeds means that you start with a product that is untreated and free of pesticides. Although our seeds are not certified organic, they can certainly be used in an organic garden and many are grown by organic farmers. Also, they are not genetically modified.
In sharp contrast to hybrids, Heirlooms trace their ancestry back many years to a time when pesticides and herbicides were not in use. As Jere Gettle, the owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. puts it, “Basically, an Heirloom seed is one that has been passed down through families and is usually considered to be over 50 years old. Some varieties even date back to Thomas Jefferson’s garden and beyond.” Unlike hybrids or GMO’s which often have problems reproducing to the parent strain, Heirloom seeds can be saved and replanted, ensuring a trustworthy supply of family food year after year.
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) results from a discipline called Genetic Engineering which involves taking genes from one species and inserting them into another. For example, genes from an arctic flounder which has "antifreeze" properties may be spliced into a tomato to prevent frost damage. It is impossible to guide the insertion of the new gene. This can lead to unpredictable effects. Also, genes do not work in isolation but in highly complex relationships which are still not fully understood. Any change to the DNA at any point will affect it throughout its length in ways scientists cannot predict. The claim by some that they can is both arrogant and untrue.”

Burpee says this of heirloom seeds:
“Old-fashioned vegetables and flowers that have been passed down through the generations. Heirloom seeds are old-time favorites that produce plants with the same traits planting after planting, season after season, generation after generation. Some heirlooms date back 100 years or more.”

Also according to Burpee, the managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine, Therese Ciesinski, describes it this way:

“Organic gardening is more than simply avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. It is about observing nature’s processes, and emulating them in your garden as best you can. And the most important way to do that is to understand the makeup of your soil and to give it what it needs. If anything could be called a ‘rule’ in organic gardening, it’s this: feed the soil, not the plant.”

The USDA has a very excellent article entitled “Vegetables and Fruits: A Guide to Heirloom Varieties and Community-Based Stewardship”. They also explain their Organic Certification program here.

Here’s more about the difference between hybrid and open-pollinated seeds on Primal Seeds website. I would be negligent if I didn’t share Backwoods Home Magazine’s thoughts in their article called “Use Non-Hybrid Seeds and Save Big Bucks in This Year’s Garden”. One last article for you. Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms by the Human Gemone Project covers both the pros and cons of GMOs.

Mother Earth News suggests these companies for heirloom seeds:
Offering heirloom, non-genetically modified seeds, Baker Creek’s store in Petaluma’s historic Sonoma County National Bank building is a beacon for gardeners, foodies and tourists. Last June, Baker Creek added a new family member—Comstock, Ferre & Co., the oldest continuously operated seed company in the United States. Owner Jerre Gettle plans to preserve Comstock’s historic East Coast garden and create a green agro-tourism destination.
Founded in a New Hampshire farmhouse attic in 1973 by a 22-year-old vegetable grower named Rob Johnston, Johnny’s is a partially employee-owned company dedicated to rigorous seed testing and top-quality, non-hybrid products. You can tour Johnny’s 40-acre research farm Monday through Friday, July through September.
Dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds, Seed Savers Exchange members have been distributing rare garden seeds for 35 years. Visit their 890-acre Heritage Farm to see the group’s gorgeous preservation gardens, the source of the largest nongovernmental seed bank in the United States.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, offers heirloom varieties tested for performance, flavor and disease resistance. Though the group focuses primarily on plants suited to the Mid-Atlantic, it provides seeds, education and services for gardeners nationwide. The small staff doesn’t accommodate farm visits.
Family owned and operated, Terroir Seeds and its associated gardens, Underwood Gardens, specialize in heirloom, organic and rare seeds, soil building and seed saving. The group grows some of its seeds on its 3-acre garden in Chino Valley; the rest are grown by Terroir’s network of gardeners and family growers across the country.

Here is a variety of sizes of SeedSafe seed collections from The Ready Store.

I hope this all helps you decide which direction you would like to go. It should at least help you to define your previously made decisions.

As always, here are my companion sites:


  1. We need to be thinking about the origins of our food. Thank you for putting the information together concisely so we can be properly informed.

  2. While it is crucial that we use seeds that are true to their genetic origins.. we must be careful to also use seeds that are not "owned" by any company. If your seeds have a "patent" on their genes they are not as valuable to you as seeds that don't.

  3. The article described what is QE3? nice, Due to selling of bonds Asia will get more money but the core commodities' price will increase and the expenses will shoot up to run the life in Asia.