January 2013 Newsletter (vol.14) >> Read Between the Lines
As seed catalogs begin stacking up and you start planning for your spring garden, there are some seed terms that you should familiarize yourself with. GMO, open-pollinated, organic, and heirloom varieties are just a few terms that are commonly used, but what do they really mean? You should be able to make an educated decision about which seed is best for your garden without all of the confusion. The descriptions in the seed catalogs all boast the best characteristics, but you have to read between the lines and knowing some general terms may help.
GMO (Genetically Modified Organism): An organism produced through genetic modification for desired inheritable traits, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional breeding methods. Genetic modification and genetic engineering have been used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. Genetic modification has been occurring for a long time. Genes have been selected by plant breeders to create a plant that displays a specific trait such as increased yield, disease resistance, or flavor.
GE (Genetically Engineered): An organism produced by manipulation of genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques. The result is a plant that does not/cannot occur in nature such as the Bt corn or the Roundup Ready crops.
Open-Pollinated (OP): Varieties that result from either cross pollination between two plants either by insects, wind, or water or they can result from self pollination where both male and female flowers are on one plant. If you collected seeds from OP varieties and planted them they will “come true to type” meaning they will produce a plant just like the parent plant. That being said, open pollinated plants must be separated by a specific distance from other open pollinated varieties or you risk cross pollination which will produce seed that does not come true to type.
Hybrid (F-1): An F-1 or first generation hybrid is produced when two pure lines (plants that produce identical offspring when self-pollinated) are cross pollinated to create a new seed with desirable traits of both parents. Hybrid seed is typically more expensive and if saved and planted will not come true to type. These varieties are created primarily for the ease of the grower. Most of the time they are bred for increased yields or disease resistance making it easier for the average gardener to grow.
Heirloom: The definition is disputable, but generally heirlooms are the older varieties (50+ years, or grown before WWII) that offer a spectacular range of flavors and shapes that may not be available as a standard in your grocery store or farmers market. These varieties have survived natural selection rather than hybridization. Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated-meaning that unlike hybrids, seeds you collect will produce plants that come true to type.
Organic: Seeds that are certified organic must be produced according to the USDA’s National Organic Program. They are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering.
See our 2013 Seed Catalog for great variety descriptions.