Heirloom vs. GMO (Genetically Modified) Seed – Reader Question

GMO vs. Heirloom seed and why it matters!

GMO vs. Heirloom seed and why it matters!

This weeks reader question is what is the difference between heirloom and GMO (genetically modified organism) seed? The first paragraph answers the question, after that I go into the nitty gritty if you are interested! If you have a question you would like to see on the site click here to contact me!

The short answer is that GMO (genetically modified) seed has been created in a laboratory to be resistant to pesticide, create it's own pesticide, or another benefit. If you breed the parents of GMO seeds you may or may not get offspring that looks like the parent. When you breed heirloom plants you will get offspring that look like the parent. Heirloom plants have been passed down and naturally selected to create a set of traits that will breed true.

GMO vs. Heirloom Seeds

Somebody who is versed in science could point out that creating an heirloom plant is also “genetically modifying” and in many ways they are 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. A true heirloom plant has generally been passed down through generations and has usually gone through a minimum of three generations.

The difference between this and GMO is that, first of all, your plants from the F2 generation will look like their parents while an F2 generation GMO plant will not. Second, the traits that are added to GMO seeds are not ones that would be found in the plant naturally, unlike heirloom.

Genetics of Seeds

Now for a crash course in genetics! 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 generally strive to create something that can be replicated. I used this example (about dogs) in an earlier post about heirloom seeds. Most people are familiar with dog breeds so it is an easy way to explain plant genetics with heirloom vs. GMO seed.

  • 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.
  • 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 result of a cross between a beagle and a pug. If you crossed two puggles you will get puppies that display many different traits (they will not look exactly like the parent). 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 hybrid plants is useless. The seed would either be sterile or grow something unlike the parents.  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.
  • 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.

Some Issues with GMO Seed

  • You have 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.
  • The plants can, and will, still cross with other plants that are within range (you can’t control wind, bees, etc). This leaves some previously heirloom plants 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 that becomes contaminated beyond the farmers control (by the wind/bees) leaves the farmer vulnerable to a lawsuit by the company who owns the GMO.
  • The genes added to the plant are not naturally occurring in that plant so therefore there is not enough history to see if it will have an effect on our health.
  • There is a loss of diversity. As GMO's become more popular we lose the diversity that used to exist in the plant kingdom. Diversity has saved us in the past because if a disease or animal takes out a specific type of plant there has always been other varieties that can help take over. We also lose the diversity of color, taste, etc in different varieties of plants.
  • It allows us to dump high amounts of pesticide on our crops, which can be detrimental for the environment and our own health. The most common gene in GMO seed is a resistance to pesticide. The same company that sells you the seed also sells you the pesticide, which you now must dump on your crops. The GMO plant itself is relatively weak, but once you dump the pesticide it will kill everything but that GMO.

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  • Reply Levi January 24, 2014, 8:45 am

    Often with GMO seed there is actually nothing new added, the naturally occurring good things within the seed are just magnified. This is the case with BT corn, for example.

    Often diversity, especially in cultivated plants, has been entirely created by humans. For example, there are far more varieties of corn now than there were 1,000 years ago. In other words, the present diversity of plants is not necessarily natural, although I do agree that plant diversity is important in both our survival and the survival of the plant species. But many GM crops are being made to better the chance that the plant survives. This is true of gm papaya. GM of papaya began to save the papaya from the devastation of ringspot virus. Some scientists believe that the papaya would have become extinct in the near future without genetic manipulation.

    And it really is not true that gm crops allow us to dump high amounts of pesticides on our crops. Quite the opposite. Most gm varieties allow the use of significantly less pesticides and herbicides. BT corn is one example, it has been designed to resist moths that attack it, allowing the farmer to not have to spray to control the moths.

    Also, it should be noted that the list of GM seed available is very short. About the only GM plants your average gardener might choose to plant are sweet corn and squash, and non GM varieties are far more common than the GM varieties.

    Love your site, and I don’ t mean to contradict you here, I just believe the fear of GM plants tends to be overblown.

    • Reply Heidi January 24, 2014, 7:51 pm

      No problem, I love to see the different opinions! I was 100% on the “overblown” side about 3 years ago, just not so sure anymore. I would have to look into the first fact you said to see if things have changed recently or if there is a specific strain that works differently. I worked in a lab for years, and although I was in the chemical end of things, I have a pretty good background in genetics. Generally to genetically modify something in a lab setting you introduce a new gene. If you were just trying to magnify a gene then good old fashioned breeding would be the way to go since the gene you are trying to magnify would already exist. However, if you found a gene in one of the plants that was not in the others then you could introduce it to the rest without waiting for a cross. That could be the case with BT corn. You definitely peaked my interest though, I will have to look up BT corn and see what they are doing. It is pretty difficult for a home gardener to come across GM seed though, that is true. It is pretty easy to come across it at the grocery store. Most of the things that are added are great for an industry farmer, but unnecessary for a home gardener.
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  • Reply Cloe Phillips May 8, 2014, 7:09 pm

    I must admit that I really hate talking about plants and I never did good in my Botany class when I was in college. But genetically modified organisms really interest me. They are able to be resistant to pesticides and pests. But my concern is that these traits might affect their being edible. I have nothing much to say about the heirloom seeds and information about it is limited.

    • Reply Heidi May 9, 2014, 12:10 pm

      Heirloom just means its been around for a long time and can create like offspring without help.

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