How to Understand the Difference in Seeds

There’s been so much talk about different types of vegetable seeds, that it’s no surprise that some people might feel confused. Occasionally it has been suggested that genetically modified (GMO) seeds are the same as those that are simply hybrid. But it’s not quite like that.

First, heirloom. These are seeds that have a history. It’s not a particular kind of plant as much as it is a plant that has been cultivated and the seeds saved by the gardener or farmer. They are called “heirloom” because they have been a successful producer and are prized enough for the seeds to be saved. In general, these are not mass-produced for seed farms, and are often only obtained from the farmers who cultivated them. Heirloom seeds are “open pollinated” and they produce more seeds exactly like themselves.

Well, are heirloom seeds hybridized? They can be, though the resulting seed is not considered “heirloom.” Hybridization, or the crossing of two related species of the same plant, has been going on since the beginning of agriculture. Plants are cross-pollinated in the hope of developing a plant with the best features of both parent plants. But with the first generation of hybrid seed, referred to as F1, the hybrid plant will not produce seedlings with identical qualities to the parent. Instead they produce seeds that have the qualities of the parent plants that contributed to them. Sometimes they will eventually “breed true,” but many hybrids never do.

Genetically modified organisms or GMOs are developed in a laboratory. They are genetically altered using gene-modifying technology like protein engineering and cloning. Some crops with a large commercial demand, like corn, may be genetically altered to include the pesticide Bt to make it genetically resistant to certain pests. While some contend that Bt is a “natural pesticide” it would never be found in the corn’s structure without genetic modification.

So, heirloom seeds are produced in small-scale operations to further a particularly good strain of a plant. They are reproduced with open pollination. Hybrid is the result of cross-pollination of two related plants to make a plant that has the best properties of both parents—but it cannot reproduce itself reliably. Finally, GMO seed is created and modified in the laboratory for large-scale commercial operations.