Thursday, January 24, 2013

Hybrids and Heirlooms and GMOs, Oh My!

I am finding that organizing the office is a daunting, I-think-I-bit-off-more-than-I-can-chew-in-a-week, project. So naturally, my thoughts and plans are taking me elsewhere.

And that elsewhere is to my soon-to-be-planted garden.

One of my goals for our family is to embrace urban (or in our case, suburban)agriculture/homesteading. Of course, a HUGE component of urban homesteading is planting food crops in our yard. As this is my third year pretending to be a gardener, and I am starting to plan what seeds I need to order and when to start my seedlings. No small task, considering the myriad seed/seedling choices that are out there.
When we planted at the community garden, the first year we planted largely transplants from our local home improvement store. I didn't really know much about gardening or plants, so I was good with popping a few transplants into the ground, using organic soil amendments and calling it a day.
Look at all those tasty hybrids
Our second year, I had recently read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver, and was made aware of the existence of heirloom seeds. I knew they were "better" because they hadn't been messed with and had stuck around because they were good producers,  so I ordered a bunch of great heirloom seeds from Seed Saver's Exchange, but I still wasn't sure what the real difference was between hybrids and heirlooms. And were hybrids GMOs? I was SO confused

So I did some research and am going to give you the Cliff's Notes version of what I learned about hybrids and heirlooms. This is in no way comprehensive, but will hopefully help you make decisions as you prepare for your gardens (if you have them).

Hybrid: Hybrids are an intentional cross-pollination between two varieties of a plant to produce certain "preferred" traits (disease resistance, larger fruits, rapid production). Some cross-pollination does happen in nature, but most hybrid plants have been bred that way by plant breeders (that is a real thing). Generally speaking, you can't really save the seeds of a hybrid plant because they will either produce an infertile plant (like how the majority of mules can't reproduce) or if you get any kind of fruit it may favor the traits of one parent over the other. After many years, they may stabilize into a plant that produces the originally intended fruit, however, many seed companies now own patents on their plant crosses, which means only they have the right to reproduce the hybrid. And they could technically sue the pants off of you.

Hybrid plants are the seeds and seedlings that most of your local home improvement and garden centers sell these days. While there isn't anything technically "wrong" with hybrids, oftentimes there is a trade-off to get the desired traits-- so nutrition and flavor in exchange for bulk production and aesthetics.

So, are hybrids GMOs? In a word, no. While it has been modified, a hybrid has been modified in a way that humans have been altering plants for years, whereas, according to The Non-GMO Project, GMOs "are organisms that have been created through the gene-splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). This relatively new science allows DNA from one species to be injected into another species in a laboratory, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods." So, since nothing "foreign" has been added to the mix, hybrid plants are not GMOs

These are plants that are always self- or open-pollinated (OP), meaning pollen is randomly exchanged by natural means. Generally speaking, OP seeds are more genetically diverse and more adaptable (long term) to local climates. Now, although all heirloom seeds are OP seeds, not all OP seeds are heirlooms. In order to be an heirloom seed a seed must be at least 50 years old and be capable of being saved. Some seeds have been handed down from farmer to farmer (or gardener to gardener) for centuries. Also, the plants must be grown away from other plants of the same species so as to avoid natural cross-pollination. That means that when I plant my Black Krim tomatoes, if I want to save the seeds and have them still be considered heirloom Black Krim tomatoes, I need to ensure that they aren't grown with my Amish Paste tomatoes so that cross-pollination doesn't occur.

So why use heirlooms over hybrid? While heirloom seeds may not grow as fast or produce as much as a hybrid, they often taste better, have better color and more nutrients than a hybrid plant. On a frugal note, if you want to save money, heirlooms are the way to go, because you can save your seeds and keep producing quality produce without having to order new seeds every year.

There you have it folks. My Cliff's Notes version of Hybrid vs. Heirloom. For me, planting mostly heirloom seeds is the way to go on our little "farm."  I like the idea that I am helping to preserve the sometimes centuries old traits of these heirloom plants, I know they haven't been messed with, I think they taste better, and in some ways, it feels like I'm sticking it to the man by planting heirloom seeds.

Now I am off to peruse my Seed Saver's Exchange catalog, instead of organizing the office.

Questions? Comments?

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1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you posted about non-gmos. We support The Non-gmo Project as well. It is a great resource.


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