Seeds: Heirlooms, Hybrids, GMOs, OPs

I found that there is some confusion about all these terms used for seed. And since seeds are where it all starts when it comes to gardening, I thought I would take a bit of time to clarify things.

Open Pollinated, or OP, means that a plant will come “true” from seed; the next generation will look reasonably like the last, so long as there has been no accidental crossing with other plants. All Heirlooms are OP, but not all OPs are Heirloom. New OP varieties are created every year. Generally, a hybrid between two OP varieties is created, and the best of the resulting plants selected over many generations until they “come true.”
“Heirloom” means that the OP strain in question is about sixty years old. Every heirloom plant was new once.
“Hybrid” means that two OPs were crossed to grow the seed for the plant in question. If a zucchini and a pumpkin were planted next to one another, and the seed was saved, it would almost certainly be hybrid seed; bees would have crossed it. The seed that was planted next year (the “f1” generation of a hybrid) would all come up looking alike, but different then either parent. If it was better than the originals in some way, the gardener might decide to do the same cross again to generate more hybrid seed. If, however, seeds were saved from the plants in the f1 generation, the resulting plants (in the “f2” generation) would be wildly diverse. Selection over may years could then create a new OP variety which would come true from seed. Most heirlooms were once hybrids. So a hybridization is a natural process. The problems start when seed companies drop all their OP varieties and switch exclusively to hybrids, making it harder for gardeners to be self sufficient in seed and destroying biodiversity. Also, many modern varieties, whether OPs or hybrids, are suited to modern agriculture, and need large amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and perfect growing conditions. Older varieties are more likely to perform well in sub optimal conditions.

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are lab creations; they are not hybrids. GMOs are generally not sold to home vegetable gardeners; farmers who grow them have to sign complicated legal documents that prevent them from saving seed and cutting into the profits of the seed company. In fact, there are few GMO varieties of vegetables; most GMOs are grains or oil seed crops.  GMOs pose many problems on many different levels.

In my next post, I will explain our strategy for saving seed on the farms and avoiding many of the difficulties involved in saving pure strains of OP varieties.