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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Hybrid, F1, GMO, Heirloom... Making Sense in the Garden

It has come to my attention that in the (in my opinion) concern over genetic engineering of plants and animals, there is much confusion and misunderstanding among many lay persons about what constitutes a GMO seed product. With the often knee-jerk proliferation of memes and articles "rallying the troops" against Monsanto and similar companies, "big ag" and the unknown effects of genetic engineering on us and the environment farther down the line, many folks seem to have lost track (if they even paid attention) of some of the basic science we should have learned in high school.

So, in an attempt to clear up any confusion, this is my attempt to explain Plant Breeding 101.

What does GMO actually mean? 

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Genetic engineering  is the direct manipulation of a plant or animal's DNA by use of biotechnology. New DNA may be inserted, genes may be removed, deleted or mutated. The goals of the technology vary and can include making a plant more resistant to cold, pests or pesticides which could be then more effectively used against weeds in that crop, for example. Genetic engineering can be used to increase a specific nutrient, or to make the plant or animal grow more quickly.

Many of these goals are desirable, though we may disagree with the method.

Many of these goals have also been the focus of traditional plant breeding, which has gone on for centuries.

Hybrid plants and animals are NOT GMO.

Hybridization is the result of interbreeding of two species (such as a mule or a hinny -- both crosses between a horse and a donkey or a beefalo, the cross between a American bison and a domestic cow) or two genetically different plants.Both can happen naturally and hybrids have been around so long that we have forgotten the origin of some!
  • Peppermint, a hybrid between spearmint and water mint
  • Triticale, a wheat–rye hybrid
  • Wheat; most modern and ancient wheat breeds are themselves hybrids. 
  • Bread wheat is a hybrid of three wild grasses. 
  • Durum (pasta) wheat is a hybrid of two wild grasses
  • Grapefruit, hybrid between a pomelo and the Jamaican sweet orange.
 An "F1 hybrid" is a first generation hybrid.

"F1" is shorthand for "first filial;" in other words the first generation of a cross between two different parent varieties of seeds. They often display characteristics of vigor and uniformity. F1 hybrids of annual plants such as tomatoes are usually created by controlled pollination, sometimes hand pollination, and must be produced anew each year. A common example is the tomato Juliet, shown here in Johnny's Selected Seeds catalog. F1 hybrids have been around since the days of Gregor Mendel's research in the mid-1800s.

While F1 hybrid plants have much to recommend them, they do not "breed true." Saving the seed will result in an F2 generation of plants that does not have the consistency of the F1 hybrid. It may, however, retain some desirable traits and can be produced more cheaply as no intervention in the pollination is required.

"Heirloom:" a poorly defined term or marketing ploy?

While some people try to define “heirloom” by age, such as saying that any plant that originated before 1951 (after which hybridization became popular) is an heirloom, the most widely accepted definition of what constitutes an heirlooms is that it is open-pollinated and was grown in an earlier era. Some heirlooms are hundreds of years old, and others originated around the turn of the 20th century.

Why "open pollinated?"

Open pollinated plants are the boon of seed savers and frugal gardeners. Allow some of your open pollinated plants to mature and go to seed, save the seed and you can plant the same variety next year!
There is a little more to it than that, but that's the basics.

If you plant more than one variety of a plant (such as my rows which contain over 15 different kinds of lettuce!) any seeds I save will be cross bred, as the bees and other pollinators visit various lettuces on their rounds. If I wanted to save seed that was true to variety, I would need to separate the varieties with other types of plants in between to minimize cross pollination. Or I could just let nature take its course, plant the F1 and then F2 hybrids and eventually have a unique "Fussing Duck Lettuce."

The "Safe Seed Pledge"

The Safe Seed Pledge was created in 1999 when a coalition of 10 seed companies drafted a statement about the signers' stance on genetic engineering. Over 70 companies have signed the pledge, ranging from large seed companies to family-owned businesses.
"Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms poses great biological risks, as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities."

Fedco seeds points out some of the legal issues on their web page. They are signers of the Safe Seed Pledge, but they point to the language in the Pledge "we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants," saying that because of genetic drift, over which no one has any control,  one cannot give an absolute guarantee. In my opinion, this is both honest and responsible.

All but one of the (thus far) 109 varieties I am planting this year come from one of the following companies, all of whom have signed the Safe Seed Pledge.

Fedco Seeds
Territorial Seeds
Johnny's Selected Seeds
High Mowing Seeds
Renee's Garden Seeds