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The Breed of your Seed Understanding the Difference between Open-Pollinated, Hybrid, Heirloom and GMO

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 February Issue Newsletter

By Christy Bassett, The Organic Food Guide Coordinator for NOFA/Mass

For the backyard gardener, a seed catalog can be an exciting resource full of opportunities that cast visions of gorgeous rare plants thriving in your garden and previously undiscovered vegetables that astound your taste buds.  But where did these unique seeds come from and why does it matter?

There are different terminologies that are thrown around and each one carries with it an understanding of how plants reproduce and ultimately the way that they are controlled.

Open-pollinated species of plants are typically categorized by their tendency to breed true to type.  Left to reproduce naturally, they are pollinated by wind, insects, animals or other natural means and the resulting offspring will resemble the parent generation.  Most “traditional” varieties of flowers and vegetables that we know today are open-pollinated. Seeds can be saved from these plants to create similar varieties the following year, assuming the parent population was large enough and the isolation distances were long enough to keep other varieties from crossing into the original line.

Hybrids are the result of two different species or varieties of plants that are cross-pollinated, either naturally or by human intervention.  When we talk about hybrids, or a seed variety is labeled as a hybrid, it is typically referring to an f1 hybrid, or the first generation of plant resulting from a purposeful crossbreeding.  Unlike hybridization that occurs in nature, f1 hybrids are deliberately inbred to create a certain desirable trait. F1 hybrids will not breed true to type in the next generation, due to genetic recombination that takes place during sexual reproduction.  In other words, the second generation (f2) plant that comes from a breeding of two f1 parents will not necessarily resemble the parent plants and would be considered a different variety all together because of the recombination of genes that occurs. This means that seed from f1 hybrids cannot be saved or counted on to produce a similar variety year after year.  

The variety of seeds available to gardeners can be overwhelming; Heirloom seeds are passed down within communities for many generationsHeirloom varieties are a specific type of open-pollinated plant that have been passed on in families or communities for 50 years or more.  Heirloom is more of a cultural definition, rather than a biological definition, as above. Heirlooms are cherished primarily for their cultural and traditional ties to history, but are also prized for their flavor.  One of the biggest reasons that people saved certain seeds over time is because they tasted so good. Heirlooms that have been grown by communities over many generations will begin to adapt to the microclimate that they are grown within.  Individuals that perform the best when exposed to the regional conditions are likely selected as seed donors at the end of the season, which passes these qualities onto the next generation. This is why somebody in the south can have a variety of Brandywine tomato that looks different or tastes different than a Brandywine tomato grown in the Northeast.

GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are created by human intervention in a laboratory.  This is different than classical breeding (which can happen through pollinators or human intervention), as genes in GMOs are altered at a sub-molecular level that would not be possible in nature.  In the United States, in order for a plant to be considered a “GMO”, the genetic material included in the individual must come from at least two different kingdoms (plant, animal, bacteria, virus).  GMOs are not found in nature and for the most part are not readily available in seed catalogs marketed to the backyard gardener, as they are proprietary to their creators. It costs a lot of money to genetically engineer a plant, and people who are purchasing GMO seed are typically paying a lot of money and signing large contracts for their use.  An overwhelming amount of GMOs are grown to withstand heavy herbicide application, which is likely not a purchasing draw for the average organic gardener anyway.

According to Bill Braun, NOFA/Mass Board Member, farmer at Ivory Silo Farm, and the founder of Freed Seed Federation these differences are important to note.  

seedsThe first hybrid plants were developed after World War II.  Corn varieties were selectively hybridized for higher yield.  The resulting cross made evident a phenomenon known as hybrid vigor.  Almost all corn producers then switched over to these hybrid varieties in the pursuit of a more profitable crop.  This led to a general presupposition that hybrid varieties were categorically more vigorous than open-pollinated varieties, which in turn created a clear focus on developing hybrid varieties across the board.  (However, as was soon discovered, hybrid vigor does not materialize in all species.) Breeders soon realized that since hybrid seeds do not breed true in the next generation, they were now able to control the ability for others to “steal” their varieties.  It was a light bulb moment for these producers as they realized that this was a much more inexpensive form of intellectual property: you get all the control of the variety without the cost of patents, because you are the only one that knows the parent lines that make that variety.

“In some ways it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that we are ending up with more and more hybrids.  The time, attention and money are given to these hybrid plants while open-pollinated varieties have been left behind,” says Braun.

Hybrids are popular with growers as well because yields from f1 seeds are often more reliable than those from open-pollinated varieties.  Hybrids were selectively bred for other traits that were appealing to consumers as well, including color, shape, storability, resistance to bruising, etc.  However, with a limited gene pool, hybrid populations are more vulnerable to diseases or changes in growing conditions. In Bill’s words, “It is not an exception to the rule, but more the rule itself - there is often a breakdown in the efficacy of hybrids.  If a variety is bred for disease resistance, for example, and the pathogen mutates, now there is not enough genetic diversity in that variety to draw upon for that strain to survive the threat.” Despite the potential shortcomings of hybrids, they continue to be an inexpensive way for companies to maintain control over seed.

Bill reminds us that intellectual property within the seed trade is problematic because, as he and other people believe, “seeds are a part of our public commons.  Just like air and water, seeds should be available to people to grow food on earth. Besides, hybrids are typically not bred for taste. They are bred for uniformity, industrial-scale farming, and good storage life.”

Bill is passionate about keeping the rights to seeds in the public domain and has an in-depth understanding of seed breeding for preservation and resiliency.  He, along with other leaders in the seed sovereignty movement, are doing all they can to spread the plea to free seeds. Open Source Seed Initiative is one such group.  A statement on their website shares their mission: “Inspired by the free and open source software ‘copyleft’ movement that has provided alternatives to proprietary software, OSSI was created as a moral code of good faith to keep pledged varieties, their progeny, and new varieties bred from them in the public domain in perpetuity.”

While this seems like a lot of responsibility, I asked Bill what the average backyard gardener can do to help.  He reminded me that small scale gardeners are often heroes of creating varieties that are well-adapted to individual micro-climates.  If you save seed year after year, retaining the best-performing specimens from your own garden, you are creating a line of plants that are regionally well-adapted- the way that seeds were bred for thousands of years before us.  He also makes clear that hybrids are not necessarily bad. “If local farmers can grow a vegetable that people want to eat and can make money from it to continue farming, then I think that’s the bottom line.”

But if you are interested in sourcing some open-pollinated seeds that grow well in the Northeast, here are some good resources to look into:

Bill has been very generous with his time as he ventures to spread the word about keeping seeds accessible to all.  Recently he manned the Seed Swap Table at the 2019 NOFA/Mass Winter Conference, sharing his private stash of seeds as well as his knowledge with everyone who stopped by to have a look.  He is also co-hosting the upcoming Second Annual Seed Sovereignty Day on Saturday February 9, 2019 at Round the Bend Farm in South Dartmouth, MA, along with NOFA/Mass and Freed Seed Federation.

Other upcoming events for Bill include a NOFA/Mass webinar on The Seed Sovereignty Movement and What it Means for Small Farmers on February 26, 2019 and an in- person workshop titled “Winter Production and Seed Breeding at Ivory Silo Farm” on March 25, 2019.

For a more personal look at Bill, read Julie Rawson’s interview with him from September 2017 or listen to Season one, episode nine of the NOFA/Mass Podcast where he made an appearance in 2018.

Read more about Seed Sovereignty month at NOFA/Mass here. 


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