Heirloom, Open Pollinated, Hybrid, and GMO Seeds–What They Are, and Why You Should Care
Everything is about balance.
The same holds true about gardening and plant care. With so many new developments, agricultural techniques, and innovative technology, growing food has now become a science on its own. Crops that were previously difficult to grow, susceptive to pests, or perhaps barely edible nor nutritious can be given a few tweaks to suit the needs of the people who grow and eat them. This was all made possible through Genetic Engineering.
But as we move towards the future, more and more people are asking for us to hit pause on the innovative breaks. They tell us to take a look back at the past, and treasure the good things that we once had.
More importantly, many fear that the recent developments are leading us into the wrong direction. They are now suggesting to take an entirely different approach.
Instead of modification, the aim of the game is to hold on to the best, natural version. This is the way Mother Nature had intended it.
But is there really a better choice in this battle between Technology and Tradition?
Before you decide what seeds to sow, get to know the kinds of seeds and what sets them apart from the other.
True to its name, Heirloom is like the engagement ring your great grandmother passed down to your generation.
Heirloom seeds are preserved from their original cultivar and are only allowed to pollinate through “true breeding.” That is to say, nothing but nature touches it. There are no modifications, and no introductions of new cultivars to mix with its DNA. Heirloom plants are strictly open-pollinated where the intended outcome is a new plant that is similar to its parent plants. Through these measures, we can bring back and continue to enjoy a crop that has been handed down in a family for decades. It is also because of Heirloom seeds that we can bring back a traditional grain or variant of crop that has been around for centuries or even thousands of years.
There are various reasons for preserving seeds and passing them down. For one, this helps in the documentation of living crops from a certain time period. It also protects a cultivar from certain extinction.
Secondly, particular flavor profiles and crop types are preserved through time. You can still have the chance to taste the Heirloom Boston Marrow Squash from 1831 up to this day. Purple skinned tomatoes and unique kinds of lettuce may be rare, but they can be still cultivated due to heirloom seeds.
Lastly, many argue that the old cultivars are just much better. Many heirloom plants remain to have good nutrient density. The belief is that due to true breeding, the plants have developed better resistance to pests and can absorb nutrients better from the soil where it is grown.
But is an heirloom plant really more nutritious than others?
Not necessarily. The requirements for the title heirloom have nothing to do with the nutritional content. An Heirloom is just so because it is a preserved seed. A particularly bland and nutritionally lacking cultivar of spinach could have been preserved two centuries ago, and it would have earned the Heirloom name. But it wouldn’t necessarily be more nutritious than Hybrid or GMO plants. The largest criteria for an heirloom plant to be called thus remains to be the way it has been pollinated.
With every intention to stay true to its roots and to keep it in the family, Open Pollination (OP) is the method that is key to keeping Heirloom seeds. While every Heirloom seed must be Open Pollinated, the inverse isn’t necessarily true.
Traditionally, OP is meant to signify true breeding. Crops are kept in an isolated area, and are allowed only to self-pollinate. They can also pollinate with other crops in its own specific variant to produce new plants that are similar to the parent. True-bred OP seeds are prerequisites to Heirloom seeds, but may not always qualify for Heirloom if they do not yet stand the test of time.
OP may also mean free, natural, or uncontrolled pollination. In this sense, pollination occurs through unknown sources. These sources may be wind, bees, birds, and others. Through uncontrolled pollination, new genetic traits may be introduced into the cultivar. This in turn may increase biodiversity in the ecosystem.
Unlike Uncontrolled OP, Hybrid is intentional and controlled.
Some Hybrids may be a result of OP. But when a desirable new variant is formed, it is isolated and allowed to self-pollinate to become a standalone variant of its crop. It may be a hybrid, but it still breeds true to its own variant.
Meanwhile, other hybrids are formed with specifically chosen cultivars allowed to breed. Again, after a desirable variant is achieved with all the suitable crop traits, the new variant is then isolated and allowed to self-pollinate.
You may remember this as a lesson about peas, priests and Punnet squares. Every introductory biology or genetics class may mention Gregor Mendel, the father of Modern Genetics. His famous experiment on cross-breeding of peas is a perfect early example of hybrids.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)
Instead of (almost very literally) leaving the hybridization process up in the air, and allowing two breeds of plants to cross-pollinate until the desired effect is achieved, the technology produced in the past few decades has allowed us to skip past Mother Nature’s slow cooker recipe. Technology has allowed us to dig right into the pudding.
Through genetic engineering, DNA strands from other cultivars or entirely different species can be introduced to an organism. Only very specific traits are chosen, which can also help avoid the undesired effects of OP-born Hybrids.
GMO Seeds have helped largely in crop production in countries with harsh weather conditions or where an outbreak of pest-carried diseases have shown drastic effects. Papayas in Hawaii are now mostly resistant to the ringspot virus that once plagued them. This is due to the introduction of a protein from a different breed of Papaya that is resistant to the virus. Rice in South-East Asian tropical countries, where production may stagger due to drought, has been improved through genetic modification. This allowed rice crops to thrive in less water.
Most common crops today, like corn and soy, were barely even edible in the past. It was largely due to GMO that they are now widely available and very useful in daily staple diets across the globe.
Though GMO crops have been great life savers, the question of safety still remains. No study has produced findings showing significant health risks in the consumption of GMO food so far. However, the uncertain impact on the ecosystem may still be disconcerting for many as well, especially with the possibility of a GMO being introduced into the wild through cross pollination.
Best of Both Worlds
Whether you end up choosing to build your garden with entirely heirloom seeds or deciding to use an old dog with new strands of DNA, is entirely up to you and what you need from your garden.
Heirloom seeds allow the preservation of a lot of variety, and possibly balancing the best of nutrition and pest-resistance. Meanwhile, GMO seeds have an expert’s seal of approval and leave nothing up to chance.
Deciding as well whether to Open Pollinate in your own garden or to experiment with hybridization may help you preserve your own heirloom seeds for the future. This may even lead you to discover new variants no one has yet tried.
Definitely, neither the agricultural nor the culinary scene could have survived centuries without a perfect blend of all these seed types and pollination methods. It’s all about striking the perfect balance between old, traditional cultivars and new, innovative variants.