By Terri Smith –

During my workshops I am often asked what the difference is between GM seed, hybrid seed, organic seed, heirloom or heritage seed, and open-pollinated seed. Here is my short answer.

A few of my favourite heritage seed varieties saved from my garden (clockwise from top left: Painted Mountain corn, Little Marvel shelling pea, Tohya soya bean, dwarf sunflower, Hungarian pepper, Romanesco zucchini, and a purple bean. Photo credit: Terri Smith

Genetically modified (or GM) seed has been altered in a lab so that the plant will have certain characteristics that misguided growers think they want (my bias is showing, I know). This seed is always patented. Crops from GM seeds may or may not produce food that is fit to eat; it seems the jury is still out on that one. There is an equal amount of propaganda from both sides claiming that GM food is either totally safe and healthy or that GM food will definitely kill you.

My issue with generically modified organisms (GMO) is that as these crops inevitably cross-pollinate natural species, the offspring become increasingly less viable, and we risk contaminating naturally bred seed, which would mean that we could become completely reliant on giant corporations for food and biodiversity would be compromised. My other issue is that these seeds are usually bred so that growers can spray the heck out of them and grow them in huge monoculture systems, and this sort of growing depletes the soil, contaminates the water, and destroys ecosystems.

Hybrid seed is a bit confusing. Hybrids are not GMOs. Hybrids are created by crossing two different varieties within the same plant species to try to get specific characteristics simply using pollination. Here’s an imaginary example: kohlrabi and cabbage are the same species and can cross-pollinate even though each plant is quite different. Their offspring could be something completely different than either parent, or something similar to one of the parents but with different characteristics (like faster growth). We will call this imaginary offspring a kohlage. The kohlage may be a wonderful plant and have many great features, but if you saved the seed of the kohlage, it may grow something odd or it may just throwback to one of its parents’ types, if it germinates at all. It may not, because all of the kohlage seed you purchased will be genetically identical, and we know that genetically identical things should not breed.

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with hybrid seed. You will want to buy new seed each year,but unless it is patented, it is not illegal to save the seed from hybrids. Hybrids are often resistant to disease and have other advantages like being ready to harvest all at once. These advantages are known as “hybrid vigour.” You can tell a plant is a hybrid in a seed catalogue by the symbol: (F1).

Hybrid seeds are sometimes patented. If it has a © symbol after its name, then it is patented. I grow a combination of hybrid, open-pollinated, and heritage seed, but I never buy patented seeds just on principle. I don’t believe in patenting life. I do understand that a lot can go into breeding a plant with specific characteristics, and I understand wanting to protect it. But I believe more strongly in protecting biodiversity and the importance of seed saving as so many varieties of important plants are disappearing rapidly.

Open-pollinated seeds come from two parent plants that are alike. To continue with my above example, both parents of open-pollinated seeds would be either a cabbage or a kohlrabi, but not one of each. Open-pollinated seeds can be saved, and their offspring will be true to type. Open-pollinated seeds are represented by the OP symbol in your seed catalogue. Since 1985, patents have also been allowed on open-pollinated seeds.

Heritage seed and heirloom seed are interchangeable terms. These seeds are all open-pollinated and must have been in cultivation for a set amount of time. How long is still open for debate. Some say 100 years and others say 50 years, and still others argue that it’s not the number of years, but rather, that the seed must predate the mass plant hybridization that began after WW II. Heritage seeds will have unique characteristics and will often perform well in a specific environment. They are not always as easy to grow as hybrid seed. They often produce distinctive and tasty produce.

Organic seed comes from plants that were grown organically, and while you may not think this matters since you are not eating the seed you are planting, remember that if you are growing organically, you are buying the best seed to grow using organic methods. If you care about organic practices, then you probably also want to support the existence of organic seed.

Saving seed from year to year allows a gardener to develop plants that are adapted to the specific area where that gardener lives. Over time these carefully cultivated varieties will out-perform other varieties of the same plant because they will develop characteristics uniquely suited to where they grow. -GG

An erstwhile market gardener and mother of goat, Terri lives on a small farm near Quesnel, BC. There she gardens, makes art, writes about local food, teaches workshops, and works at Long Table Grocery as Guardian of the Vegetables.

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