The Difference Between GMO, Hybrid, Organic, and Heirloom Seeds

by Halley -Author at MIGardener

There is a lot of concern about where our food comes from. Now, people want to know where their seeds come from. How can we feel confident in our own gardens with so many people shouting out terms like GMO-free, and hybrid, F1 hybrid, organic, heirloom organic, and many other terms for seed. It can feel very overwhelming when selecting seeds for the garden to know which ones are best, what are the differences, and why does it matter? In this blog post, I will break down the big 4 seed types that are out there, shed some light, and hopefully ease your worries.

GMO Seed

GMO stands for genetically modified organisms, and it can also be called Genetically Engineered or (GE) for short. Genetically modified seeds are a hot button topic over whether they are safe for consumption or not. We won't be discussing that since our main focus is to differentiate the varieties.

GMO seed is usually injected with genes from another plant, or animal to give it traits that are favorable. Some of these traits could be enhanced frost tolerance or resistance to weed killers. The concern is caused when people assume GMO seeds are sold anywhere and everywhere and are being tossed around willy nilly. This could not be further from the truth. Anyone concerned about getting GMO seeds when shopping at a big box store or seed retailer has nothing to be worried about. Genetically modified seed is only ever sold to large commercial farmers. GMO seed is never being sold to small home gardeners. Further, GMO seed manufacturers are focusing on crops like soybean, sugar beet, cotton, and corn, NOT on things like tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, or peppers.

A common question we get is, "Does "improved" mean it is GMO?" - the answer is NO. Improved means the seed farmers took an old heirloom variety and improved upon it through cross-pollination to yield more dependable results.

Another common question we get is, "I bought some seeds from the store and they were sparkly, blue, green, and red. Did I buy GMO seeds?" - NO. Many hybrid seeds (and some heirlooms even) are color-coded with a light coating of color to decipher which is which when packaging. So for example cucumber seeds all look the same, so as to not mix them up, different varieties will be different colors. NOTE: there are some coatings for corn and other crops that rot in the soil that are coated, however, these seeds are not sold in stores and are ALWAYS labeled "TREATED" in very clear, bold lettering. This type of propaganda as seen in the picture leads many people astray and certainly does not do much other than prey on the uninformed.  Also, please note we are not advocates of GMO's we are simply advocates of honesty and truth.


Hybrid Seed

Hybrids are another scary term thrown around by many home gardeners and strict heirloom growers. It is certainly a preference of ours to grow with heirlooms, but certainly is not a bad thing to grow hybrids. Many people don't know that they themselves are in fact hybrids. A hybrid is the combining of genetics from two same species. So if we took a red hot pepper and pollinated it with yellow sweet pepper, the hybrid (offspring) might be a red sweet pepper! Where the annoyance comes in with hybrids is that they like to revert back to their parent types. For seed savers and people trying to preserve genetic biodiversity, a hybrid isn't useful. Saved seeds from hybrids will have unpredictable results. So in summary, hybrids are safe and should not get the flack they do from gardeners, but they are very unpredictable when trying to save seeds.

A common question we get asked about hybrids is, "What do F1, F2, and F3 hybrid mean?" - The F# just indicates the generation it comes from. F1 is the most common and means it comes from the first generation. The further along you go say F4, F5, F6, the more stable the hybrid is, and less likely it is to revert back to one of the parents (it is becoming an heirloom).

Organic Seed

Ahhh the queen of all seeds. The highly sought after "organic seed". This is one that seems like the ultimate goal but is more marketing than anything else. I hate to say it, but it is true. The cultivation of most seeds is done organically since the farmer really does not care about the aesthetics of the fruit, but instead the seeds inside. So many seed farmers will grow their food organically, but not have the money it costs to pay an organization like USDA to certify that their seeds do not have harmful chemicals in them. Further, if you are concerned about harmful chemicals in your food as most are these days (me included) you have to approach it with some thought. Assuming 0f the 100% pesticides sprayed on the field, a very unlikely but for argument's sake 5% landed on that one plant. The pesticides than would be absorbed into the plant and be distributed in the fruit. That 5% is now down to maybe .05% in each fruit, and I am being highly conservative with my numbers. THEN, the .05% is divided up as it gets stored in each seed (100 seeds for example), this now means that there is .005% of the total fertilizer in that one seed. THEN you would have to bury that seed, and the plant would grow and that .005% would have to be dispersed through the plant to .0005%, stored in the fruit .00005% and then eaten by you. So no. that is 5 parts per BILLION. I feel that this makes my point very clear, that organic seed is just as safe from a health standpoint than an inorganic seed is.

BUT, from a genetics standpoint, the argument is better. The plant that has to fend off pests naturally without the use of pesticides will indeed be stronger, more resilient, and will indeed be better suited to grow in adverse conditions. But is it worth the 30%-75% premium? You be the judge.

Heirloom Seed

An heirloom is anything that is passed down from generation to generation. In our terms, we are talking about genetics. The seeds are grown to maturity, prevented from cross-pollination (hybrids happen naturally you know), and that preserves the genetics for the next year. If the crop is grown long enough, it goes through stabilization (the tendency to revert back to the parent), and once the plant has been stabilized it can be considered an heirloom.

Heirlooms are reliable because they have been grown for so many years, their yields, growth habits, disease resistance, and other bits of information can be assessed to safely say what is to be expected when the crop is grown. Heirlooms are the most desirable because they can be saved from year to year and save money over time if you know how to save seeds. Here is our playlist on YouTube about How to save seeds from different plants.

If you are someone who wants to grow heirlooms, make sure to check out our web store! We have over 300 varieties of heirloom vegetable seed, at only .99 per pack! Click HERE to check it out!

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