Last week some friends and I were having a conversation about seeds, food and GMOs. We were discussing how Europe has begun to crack down on genetically modified plants and how the United States was a little bit behind the times when it comes to GMO foods and labeling. One of my friends mentioned that it was useless to even worry about any of it because all foods were genetically modified. I told him that I disagreed with that. There are heirloom seeds that are not genetically modified.
For one split second, however, I second guessed myself. What if he is right? I knew right then I had to find out the answer, but when I started checking into it there was so much information to sift through and most of it was written in scientific terms. I realized that if I was confused about the data and what was what then there had to be other people who were just as confused. There were two things that I had to do: 1. Decide why I wanted to know the difference in the three major kinds of seeds, and 2. Break the legalese down into simplified terms, not because I or my fellow growers are dumb but because I have always been a believer that plain talk is easily understood.
I found there are three types of seeds available to every day growers: heirloom, hybrid and GMO seeds. Any organic grower or homesteader today would be four score against GM (genetically modified) seeds, as am I, but what I found was that a lot of the food that has been genetically modified is used for other purposes other than human consumption, but I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the two easy ones first.
Heirloom seeds: These are exactly as the name implies. An heirloom is anything passed down from generation to generation, and these seeds have been done the same way. Most heirloom seeds have been open pollinated, meaning that they were pollinated by bees or the wind and not by any human interference. As a personal preference this is the type of seed that I like to stick with. These seeds can be collected every year and planted again the next season, unlike hybrid seeds.
These poles mark where I have heirloom bean seed planted.
Hybrid seeds: This is when two different plants within the same family are cross-pollinated to produce an offspring that has the best traits from both “parents.” A lot of people tend to confuse hybrid with genetically modified, this is not correct. People have been creating hybrid plants for many years. In fact, on our family farm there used to be a cherry tree that my grandparents had that was grafted with a plum tree. It gave the most beautiful, red cherries but, if a seed from one of those cherries had been planted, there was no guarantee that another cherry tree would grow. This is the same way hybrid seeds work, you can still plant them and something will grow but it is a crap shoot as to what comes out of the ground.
Above: The only photograph I have of the old cherry tree, on the left.
Hybrid seeds explained. Courtesy Non Hybrid Seeds
Finally … GMOs: Genetically modified organisms or GM (genetically modified) seeds. Sometimes I think the information on GMOs has been deliberately skewed so as to keep people from knowing how many pies the genetic engineers actually have their fingers in. In order to keep my head from spinning, I asked myself, “Why do I even need to worry about GMOs?” No. 1 answer, I don’t want to eat anything that I can’t pronounce. There are a lot of unhealthy things I have to put up with that are out of my control such as breathing bad air, but what I eat is within my control. Because labeling is not a pressing issue in the United States, it is difficult to know whether seeds purchased in department stores, or young plants for that matter, have been genetically modified. So rather than spend most of my time trying to find out if something has been altered I look for products that guarantee they have not been altered.
In the end, I can now tell my friend that no, not all foods are genetically modified. He can still feed his children good healthy food without fearing that their offspring will grow a third eye. My advice to him would be to shop local from farmers you trust. Most farmers' markets have vendors who advertise if their produce is GMO free and/or grown organically. Granted, prices are higher at these markets but aren’t your children worth it?
It's MomSense, Take the GMO quiz: how much do you know?
Bonnie Plants, Hybrid vs. GMO vs. Heirloom
GMO Inside, Debunking GMO Myths: Feeding the World
Terrior Seeds, What Are Heirloom Seeds?
Natural Society, 8 Proofs We Don't Need GMOs to Feed the World
GMO-Free Europe, GMO cultivation bans in Europe