GMO vs Heirloom seeds is one of the biggest controversies in farming right now. How much do you know about GMO vs heirloom seeds?
So for our look at GMO vs heirloom seeds, let's start out with the difference between open pollinated, heirloom and GMO (genetically modified organism). With all the garden terms out there right now (heirloom, hybrid, GMO, open pollinated, etc), it can sometimes seem like it is hard to keep up!
GMO vs Heirloom Seeds: Open Pollinated.
Open-pollinated means that the plant reproduces using whatever pollination mechanism they prefer (wind, bees, etc). They can be self or cross-pollinated plants. When specifically talking about GMO vs heirloom seeds, GMO will not self-pollinate. They will sometimes cross pollinate with plants of the same species and leave their GMO traits behind (which causes a patent problem)
- Self-pollinated plants can fertilize themselves
- Cross-pollinated plants need other plants of the same species to fertilize themselves.
GMO vs Heirloom Seeds: Heirloom.
Sometimes open-pollinated plants are also heirloom. Heirloom means it has been passed down generation to generation (usually a minimum of 3 generations). Heirloom plants are especially useful when you can find the heirloom seeds locally. Local heirloom plants are specialized for your area because of natural selection. Plants that are not good for your area die. The plants that are good for your area go to seed (heirloom seeds).
So, can heirloom seeds be GMO? No. If you cross GMO plants you will not get an offspring that looks like the parent (just like hybrid plants). Plus, it is illegal to even save GMO seed because of patent laws. Therefore, you will never get GMO plants that can be passed down generation to generation.
Are heirloom seeds genetically modified? Probably not in the way you would think genetically modified means. They are evolved (traits that are good for the area are saved by allowing the plants with those traits to breed).
If this continues for many generations you may even end up with a type of heirloom plant that is specific for your area. When specifically talking about GMO vs heirloom seeds that, GMO seeds are made the same for all locations around the world, whereas heirloom plants can be great for one local area, but not work well in another.
GMO vs Heirloom Seeds: GMO.
GMO refers to a “genetically modified organism”. GMO seeds have been modified (evolved) in a lab to be resistant to certain pesticides, produce it's own pesticide, or other enhancements.
Some people argue that creating an heirloom plant is also genetically modifying, and in many ways they would be correct. When you select plants to reproduce and save seed from you take the ones that have characteristics you like (or ones that work well in your area) you are trying to save certain genetic traits. Over the course of a few generations the trait you selected for will (hopefully) be showing up more often in the offspring.
The difference between GMO vs Heirloom seeds is that:
- Plants from an Heirloom F2 generation will look like their parents while an F2 generation GMO plant will not (more about this in the next paragraph).
- The traits that are added to GMO seeds are not ones that would be found in the plant naturally.
GMO vs Heirloom Seeds: The Genetics.
Here is where I'm going to geek out on the specifics of GMO vs heirloom seeds so if you are not a science person feel free to skip to the next section! Those of you who are interested, it's time for a crash course in genetics for GMO vs heirloom seeds!
- The F1 generation is the first generation from a cross.
- The F2 generation is the offspring from the F1 individuals.
When creating a new breed (of animals) or type of plant you usually strive to create something that can be replicated. Most people are familiar with dog breeds so I will use that.
- A beagle, poodle, pug, lab, etc is the same as an heirloom plant. Generations of selective breeding has produced traits that some people are looking for. If you cross a beagle with another beagle you will continue to see those traits. Heirloom seeds will always get you a heirloom plant that looks like the parent.
So, are heirloom tomatoes genetically modified? They are evolved, but not modified.
- A puggle is the same as a hybrid plant. The breeder took two distinct varieties and crossed them to create a new type. The puggle is the F1 generation of a beagle and a pug. If you crossed two puggles you would get an F2 generation that looks and acts nothing like the puggle. If you want the puggle again you will need to keep a beagle and pug. In the case of plants, this means saving the seed from a hybrid plant is useless. The seed would either be sterile or grow something unlike the parents, but some hybrids are still great plants and you can replicate them by using the same two distinct varieties that were originally used in the cross.
The difference between hybrid and heirloom tomatoes is that if you save the seeds from a hybrid plant you will not get the same plants the next season. Hybrid plants can be great starts for your garden, but there is no reason to save seed from them. This master gardener page goes through some of the intricacies of saving plant seeds.
- Now, there isn't an example of a GMO animal (yet) so I'll keep with the puggle example. Let's say a lab took the venom gene from a rattlesnake and inserted it into the puggle's DNA. You now have a venomous puggle. If you breed those venomous puggles you will not get another venomous puggle. The only way to get another venomous puggle is to create a beagle/pug mix in a lab and insert the rattlesnake dna.
GMO vs Heirloom Seeds: The Controversy.
The controversy with GMO vs heirloom seeds has many different facets.
- The creation of dependency on the company that created the seed. Since you cannot create it on your own you are left purchasing new seed every time you plant. Many genetically modified seeds also include genes that make them dependent on pesticide (the plant with the gene will be pesticide resistant, which means the farmer uses lots of the pesticide to kill everything but the plant).
- The question of GMO vs heirloom seed patents. The plants can, and will, still cross with other plants that are within range (you can't control wind, bees, etc). This means some previously heirloom plants will start showing random traits of the GMO. Since that seed is patented that gives the patent owners the right to a lawsuit against the person who now has the plant with the GMO characteristics. So, a previously heirloom or hybrid plant is now contaminated by the wind/bees and the farmer is also going to be sued by the company who owns the GMO.
- They are not “natural”. Pro-natural group will point out that the seeds are not natural and often want more research on the health and safety of adding in specific genes. In the venomous puggle example, some people would feel that is an abomination of nature and others would find it pretty cool.
- They decrease genetic variation within a species. You can find great heirloom seeds that will work good in your own area from a local company. It used to be that those seeds worked best. The more people that switch to GMO seeds, the less need there is for these local heirloom varieties and most simply stop being used. While this may seem like it isn't a big deal, genetic variation plays a big part in keeping species alive. This is because if something happens to wipe out a plant (or animal) variety then there is another to take it's place. If all our plants are the same (be that the same Heirloom or genetically modified seed) and something (a bug, weather problem, etc) wipes them out then ALL of that plant/food will be gone.
GMO vs Heirloom Seeds: Heirloom seed companies.
There is a lot of controversy with GMO (genetically modified) seeds, but no matter how you feel about farmers using GMO seed, I think most of us can agree that if you are trying to become self-sustainable then the GMO vs heirloom seeds question becomes easier. Using heirloom plants that you can save seed from is the only way you can be truly self-sustainable because if you use GMO seed you will have to purchase seed every year. There are some great, locally-owned companies out there that can help you find some heirloom plants and most will even offer classes to help you learn how to save your own seed. Here are a few you can start with:
- Sow True Seed, based in Asheville, NC
- Native Seeds, based in Tucson, AZ
- Seed Savers Exchange, based in Decorah, IA
- Check with your library! Some locations are now offering seed libraries. You borrow the seed for your garden and donate seed back when the season is over. There are seed libraries in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Washington. You can see the list of libraries here.
What is your favorite heirloom seed company?
GMO vs Heirloom Seeds: Starting an Organic Garden.
- If you are trying to go completely organic then be sure to click over to my organic seed starting supplies post to get some tips on how to start your organic plants out strong.
- You can get free seeds by mail from Groundswell international sends free open-pollinated non-GMO seeds to families each year. The seeds come from Sow True Seed, a seed company based in Asheville, NC.
- You can also check my post on 10 frugal garden tips to see more ways to start your (organic) garden on the cheap.
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