For beginning gardeners, homesteaders and preppers the question usually isn’t what to plant so much, but what type of seed to buy, where to get it, and is it GMO free? Here are some fear-free facts on the different types of seed to help the decision-making process and dispel any myths. With a little bit of information you can choose the type of seed that is right for you and your garden with confidence. I have cited my sources in blue lettering directly linking them within the article.
To start out, it’s important to know that “hybrid seeds” are not GMO seed (genetically modified organism). They are not created in a lab by geneticists tinkering with their DNA. The hybrid seeds you see being sold in stores and online today are simply a result of a controlled cross-pollination between two inbred parent plants. This typically results in what they call an “F1 hybrid”. Plants cross-pollinate in nature all the time, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it creates bio diversity.
Humans have been cultivating plants for thousands of years by also cross-pollinating but up until recently the process has been very slow. To create a new variety by cross-pollination used to take 6-10 generations of the plant. Now, we use controlled environments and techniques like ‘hand pollinating’ and ‘controlled crossing‘ (a method devised by Charles Darwin) to speed the process up considerably (Hybrid Seeds vs GMOs, Mother Earth News). It’s important to note that this process is not the same as “Mutagenesis” in which seeds are exposed to radiation or to chemicals to induce mutation – mutagenesis results in its own type of seed – please see below.
Plant breeders like hybrid seeds because they can take the two different varieties of plants and combine them to get a new variety which showcases the best traits of both parent plants. They also like hybrid seeds, because they can own them, therefore, the consumer has to come back to that same company year after year to get the specific variety of tomato or whatever it happens to be (Hybrid Seeds vs GMOs, Mother Earth News). This is why most stores carry a high percentage of hybrid seeds. In fact, unless otherwise stated on the packet most of the seeds you see in a grocery store are hybrid seeds, although if you look hard enough you will find some heirloom seeds as they are becoming more popular with consumers.
Pros and Cons: The bad thing about hybrid seeds (but another bonus for seed companies) is that the resulting plants will not always produce seeds to save. If they do produce seeds and if you save them – they may or may not grow. If they do grow, the resulting offspring may resemble one of the two ‘grandparent plants’ more than the original plant that was so well liked. Therefore, it’s generally not recommended to save hybrid garden seeds. The good thing about hybrid seeds is that they usually produce a reliable heavy harvest. Some varieties have been bred to grow quickly and be cold hardy, and the results will more closely mirror what you see in the grocery store – but will of course taste better (Life Unplugged, Hybrid vs Heirloom Garden Seeds).
Heirloom seeds are produced from vegetables where “an old group of plants or a ‘cultivar’ that is still maintained by gardeners and farmers…. These may have been commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture. Many heirloom vegetables have kept their traits through open pollination (heirloom seeds, wikipedia).” To be considered heirloom the seed has to be able to be tracked back to seeds that have not been subjected to modern hyper hybrid techniques, late 1800’s is the cut off for most seeds, but some will be considered as late as 1928. (What are Heirloom Seeds? seedcatalog.com).
“Open pollination is pollination by insects, birds, wind, or other natural mechanisms…. The seeds of open-pollinated plants will produce new generations of those plants; however, because breeding is uncontrolled and the pollen (male parent) source is unknown, open pollination may result in plants that vary widely in genetic traits. (In this way) open pollination increases biodiversity (open pollination, wikipedia).”
Pros and Cons: Heirloom seeds are generally recommended for preppers and homesteaders alike because you can save the seeds from heirloom fruits and vegetables for a dependable harvest year after year. This almost completely eliminates the need for buying new seed and can set the gardener up with a long term supply of food. In most cases, studies have shown the veggies they produce are healthier for you too! Heirloom vegetables also store for a longer period of time and are more diverse in flavor than veggies from hybrid seeds. They do have their draws backs though, usually related to their unpredictability, as natural processes can be unpredictable (Life Unplugged, Hybrid vs Heirloom Garden Seeds).
GMO Seeds (genetically modified organisms)
Genetically modified seeds are the result of “DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering techniques, to resist pests and agents causing harm to plants and to improve the growth of these plants to assist in farmers efficiency, (genetically modified crops, wikipedia).” These techniques can include gene splicing and the adding of outside DNA from bacteria and other animals, but they do not include mutation breeding (see below). Mutagenic seed is not GMO seed they are classified differently. Great controversy surrounds the use of Genetically Modified Seeds and the long-term health effects of the resulting food, but that will have to be another article. For this article I am merely explaining what they are and where they can be found.
GMO seed is usually sold for commercial use only and is fairly difficult for the average consumer to get a hold of. It is sold in bulk so one would have to want quite a lot of seed to even purchase them. This designer seed is exceedingly expensive and very well branded (marked on the bag) – click here to see an actual bag of GMO ‘Roundup Ready’ soy seed by Monsanto. They may not want the resulting food labeled, but they like having their brand of seed labeled so that farmers know where their incredibly huge harvest came from.
I am not aware of any GMO seeds that are produced for home garden use, their purpose is mainly for commercial grain crops. Only a few varieties of GM ‘vegetables’ have even been approved, and again, only for commercial for use. Therefore finding “non-GMO seed” for your home garden is a non-issue, they simply are not marketed for that use – there is no money in the home garden seed market for Monsanto’s or any of the other GMO seed companies (for now anyways).
“Although it’s technically possible that purchased seeds could have been produced when a normal plant was accidentally pollinated by a GM plant, it’s very unlikely. In any case, “non-GMO” garden seed labels, and oaths don’t certify that this hasn’t occurred — only that the seed producer isn’t reselling GM seeds to individuals (Life Unplugged, Hybrid vs Heirloom Garden Seeds).“
GMO seed companies watch for cross pollination like hawks. It gives them a good excuse to use practices that strikingly resemble extortion to pressure farmers that own neighboring fields to buy their seed or fight them in court. Knowing this, I personally could walk into any seed store pick up a packet of home garden seeds and be 99.9% sure that they were not GMO seeds.
Mutagenic seed is not hybrid seed, while the results of mutagenesis on seeds have been referred to as “hybridization” in popular media the two seed types are different in classification, and in purpose. Mutagenic seed is also not GMO seed, because genetic engineering techniques are not being applied. DNA is not being spliced, and outside DNA from bacteria or other animals is not being added. Mutation breeding is a process in which seeds are purposely exposed to substances like chemicals or UV radiation to cause artificial mutations in the DNA. The goal behind this process is to create mutant plants with desirable traits, like a pretty flower color that does not occur in nature.
70% of all mutagenic seed has been produced for commercial crops (think wheat), the remaining 30% mutagenic seed has been produced for ornamental and decorative plants (think of the uniquely colored flowers you have seen burst on to the market in the past 20 years). Again, the home vegetable garden market is not the target of mutagenic seed, most mutagenic seed is created and sold for commercial use (Mutation Breeding, wikipedia). Great controversy also surrounds the use of mutagenic seed and the long-term health effects of the resulting food, but for this article I am merely explaining what they are.
While mutation breeding can be nearly just as expensive as the genetic engineering process – most mutagenic seed tends to be made freely available to plant breeding and do not carry the same restriction on use, such as the patents that genetically modified seeds usually have. To compound matters, like with GMO seed, there are no labeling laws for mutagenic seed or the resulting food (Mutation Breeding, wikipedia). Choosing heirloom seed or organic seed is a good way to confidently avoid mutagenic seed.
Certified Organic seed is produced by a certified organic grower, so it has not been exposed to any chemicals throughout the growth in the field, the harvesting of the seed, and processing. Seed distributors usually have separate stainless steel equipment dedicated to handling just the organic seed so that cross contamination does not occur with ‘treated’ seed. This also prevents cross-contamination between the other commonly sold seed types (Phil Winteregg, Organic Seed Expert and Seed Distributor).
Pros and Cons: Organic seeds are more likely to be grown using organic and sustainable farming methods. As with any other organic product, organic seed reduces our direct exposure to chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides but the greater benefit is the reduction of chemicals in our fields. Sometimes non-organic seeds, even heirloom seeds, are treated with approved agents (ex: to prevent fungus, or discourage birds) these substances supposedly breakdown in the soil within days of planting and are designed to increase the chances of the seed growing.
Fortunately treated seeds are usually labeled as such, even here in the US so all one has to do is closely review the seed packet labels to avoid treated seed or purchase organic seed which is never treated. The drawback to untreated organic seeds is that for example; a first time organic pea crop is likely to fail whereas treated seed may have succeeded, not due to seed failure, but due to the failure of the gardener to wait for optimum growing conditions. Therefore more diligence is required on the part of the gardener to plant in only the best conditions (Phil Winteregg, Organic Seed Expert).
In order for seeds to be certified organic seeds, they have to be completely untreated, but because this is still a fairly small market there is not many certified organic seeds on the market as some growers would prefer. In order to grow completely organic produce, your seeds have to also be certified organic…with this exception, if there are no organic seeds available, then treated seeds may be used and as long as your methods are organic the end product can be certified organic. (Jennifer Chait, Are Organic Seeds Required for Organic Certification?)
Where to Buy
If you want to be even more careful to avoid genetically modified seeds and/or do not wish to send a Monsanto company any of your business, click here for a list of seed companies that are owned by Monsanto, and a list of seed companies that are not. Keep this in mind though, even if a seed company is not directly owned by Monsanto it is most likely owned by one of the other ‘big three’ (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta) all of which also produce genetically modified seed and now own a majority of the seed market (Consolidation of Seed Companies, Natural News).
Despite this, I am pretty sure there is no one in a back rooms of those seed companies secretly sneaking GMO seeds into packets of home garden vegetable seeds. The manufacturers would only ‘lose’ money doing that – and as the saying goes, whenever you are in doubt “follow the money honey.” The reason why GMO seed companies own home garden seed companies is no conspiracy secret it’s because they don’t just make GMO seed – they grow and produce all kinds of seed, even heirloom seeds and have acquired outlets to sell those seeds as well.
What Seed do I Use?
I started my garden with mostly heirloom seeds, so I get my seed each year from those plants in my garden at the end of the season (see picture above right) and do not purchase a lot of seed. Occasionally I buy seeds from Burpees, Heirloom Seeds, Gurneys, or Sand Mountain Herbs. I am also not above picking up a pack or two from our garden supply store when their seeds go on sale. Most of the time I will search out the selection of Heirloom seed but sometimes I will grow a hybrid variety. I am totally in love with Carnival Squash – but Carnival Squash is a F1 hybrid therefore, in order to enjoy it home-grown, I buy the seeds from my trusted sources each year. I practice fear-free gardening by not paying attention to fear-based hype and doing a little research using commonsense.
Here are some great reads on garden seeds that I highly recommend – just click on the blue text to access the articles.
- Life Unplugged, Hybrid vs Heirloom Garden Seeds
- Hybrid Seeds vs GMOs, Mother Earth News
- Consolidation of Seed Companies, Natural News
- Is Monsanto’s GMO Sweet Corn a Flop in the US?
- Organic It’s Worth it, Organic Seed Expert: Phil Winteregg
- About.com, Are Organic Seeds Required for Organic Certification?
I hope I have helped you, and have not confused you further. If nothing else it is my hope that this article convinces you that growing your own food is better than depending on geneticists to do it for you. Questions and opinions on this topic are welcome in the comments below as long as they are not spam, remain civil, and do not attack others.