How often do you hear or fnd yourself wondering what is the difference between an heirloom and an open-pollinated seed variety, an F-1 hybrid and a “GMO?” Misconceptions about these terms are rampant. Breeding techniques continue to evolve, and the ethical debate on the long-term effects of this brave new world of hi-tech breeding will rage on. One concrete way we as seed gardening professionals can help is by providing clarity.
Consider this a plain-language “go-to” resource. It will help set the record straight the next time someone refers to the “GMO Food Agenda” or asks the question, “Which is better, an heirloom or a hybrid?” Seed choices abound, and gardeners deserve to make educated decisions about what is best for their own use. The following is a list of common (and a few not-so-common) terms that you are likely to encounter:
The word cultivar derives from the term “cultivated variety.” A cultivar name is often presented as the “variety name” with the genus and species in home garden seed catalogs. In this example: “Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory (Ipomoea Purpurea),” the cultivar name is “Grandpa Ott’s.” Described by the International Code of Nomenclature as an “assemblage of cultivated plants clearly distinguished by one or more characteristics, which, when reproduced, retains its distinguishing characteristics,” a seed-grown cultivar can be either a hybrid or open-pollinated variety. So a cultivar is a cultivated variety with specific characteristics (a.k.a.“traits”).
GE (Genetically Engineered):
The terms GE and GMO frequently used interchangeably in the media, but they do not mean the same thing; it is modern Genetic Engineering that is the subject of much discussion. Genetic Engineering describes the high-tech methods used in recent decades to incorporate genes directly into an organism. The only way scientists can transfer genes between organisms that are not sexually compatible is to use recombinant DNA techniques. The plants that result do not occur in nature; they are “ genetically engineered” by human intervention and manipulation. Examples of GE crops currently grown by agribusiness include corn modified with a naturally occurring soil bacterium for protection from corn borer damage (Bt-corn), and herbicide-resistant (“Roundup Ready®”) soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and alfalfa. All of these are larger acreage, commercial crops.
At the present time, home gardeners will not encounter any packets of GE seeds sold through home garden seed catalogs or garden center seed racks.
GMO (Genetically Modifed Organism):
The USDA defnes a GMO as an organism produced through any type of genetic modification, whether by high-tech modern genetic engineering, OR long time traditional plant breeding methods. While you often hear the GE and GMO used interchangeably, they have different meanings. For hundreds of years, genes have been manipulated empirically by plant breeders who monitor their effects on specific characteristics or traits of the organism to improve productivity, quality, or performance. When plant breeders, working with conventional or organically produced varieties, select for traits like uniformity or disease resistance in an open-pollinated variety or create a hybrid cross between two cultivars, they are making the same kind of selections which can also occur in nature; in other words, they are genetically
modifying organisms and this is where the term GMO actually applies.
Examples of 20th century breeding work include familiar vegetables and fruits such as seedless watermelons, pluots and modern broccoli.
Open-Pollinated (a.k.a. OP):
Open-pollinated seed varieties are those that result from pollination by insects, wind, self-pollination (when both male and female flowers occur on the same plant) or other natural forms of pollination. If you save seeds from open-pollinated varieties and grow them in following years, they will “come true,” meaning that the plants will produce plants with characteristics or “traits” like the parent plant from which the seeds were harvested. Keep in mind, however, that both the wind and insects will pollinate different open-pollinated varieties that are planted close together. Because of this, with some common home garden plants, notably squash and pumpkins, saving seed can be a gamble, because unless different varieties are separated by specified distances, they may exchange pollen or “cross pollinate” each other.