Are you confused? What happened to the days where we could buy a seed, put it in the ground, grow the food, save the seeds and start over again next year? Once upon a time…before industrialized agriculture, there were fruits and vegetables eaten and enjoyed that you and I will never know. Think about what experiences are most pleasurable to us human beings and a close second would be the enjoyment of great foods. And no; what you’re thinking is not #1. The number one human experience is having a new baby grasp your finger with his or her tiny little hand. Nope not #3 either. That #3 spot belongs to getting into bed covered with fresh, clean sheets with someone you love…okay…then comes #4…Okay, okay…I digress.
Some folks are all mixed up and believe that hybrid seeds and GMO seeds are one and the same. Let’s talk about the three seed types and clear the confusion: Heirloom, Hybrid and GMO.
Heirloom (also known as heritage). These are the seeds your grandparents planted…well…those that were old enough to remember the Great Depression and the years before World War II. Heirloom seeds are seeds that keep their unique traits through open pollination. There are thousands of different seeds that produce their own specific variety of whatever species they belong to. Consider that there over 3000 variety of heirloom tomatoes. Martglobe, Roma, Riesentraube, Yellow Pear, Hillbilly, Green Zebra and my favorite the Red Brandywine…and that’s just a drop in the bucket to all the varieties that are out there. There is the flavor of “tomato” and then there is the flavor of “TOMATO!”
When an heirloom seed is planted…let’s say corn…the plant grows, matures and flowers. Pollinators come in and the wind blows to spread the genetic material (pollen) about. The inner workings of the flower are “satisfied” and the flower wilts. A seed begins to form and then it too matures into a viable vessel with that plant’s specific genetic “record.” Seasonal changes come about through the fall and winter and the seed finds its way into the Earth and makes an exact copy of the plant before it. This cycle happens over and over until the genetic purity is interrupted by another variety of the same species. When these two come together, something else forms. A hybrid.
Hybrid plants are the product of cross-pollination of two different varieties (in that year) of the same species. When careful controls are in place to ensure the right variety of plants are crossed in order to optimize the strong genetic traits of the two plants, the cross-pollinated offspring is superior to the parent plants in regard something specific such as better disease resistance, sweeter taste or improved production. Hybrids are not bad…they are not even in the middle of the road between the perspective of good and bad. And, they usually take a part in my garden each year. Let me explain a bit with history.
A country famous for growing potatoes (Idaho is a state) had a big problem in 1845. The leaves on the potato plants suddenly turned black and curled up. Ireland’s cool, moist breezes carried the fungus from one plant to an entire field within a few days. During the Irish Potato Famine, the population of Ireland fell by almost a quarter. About a million died and about a million left the island. These heirloom potatoes were likely very tasty and yes, ignorance and a lack of the knowledge of fungicide did play a part in this ordeal. If the Irish would have known to cross the genes of a wild Mexican potato with a United States commercial potato, they would have created a hybrid that would have resisted the late blight (Agricultural Research; May 97, Vol. 45 Issue 5, p13). Not that they would have had access to northern and central American potatoes. The point is, heirloom vegetables and fruits have the benefit of producing identical offspring but carry the same weaknesses as the parent plant. Hybrid varieties are designed by working with nature to produce (on purpose) a superior variety from two plants within the same species. HYBRID SEEDS ARE IN NO WAY COMPARABLE TO GMO SEEDS.
The truth be known, most heirlooms are just a stable hybrid. What? Offended? No, don’t be. Let’s step back and look at the animal world and specifically at dogs. When two pugs “get married,” they make a bunch of baby pug-lets. But, if we go back to the beginning, there was only the dog. Then, we folks started keeping dogs. It was pretty nice knowing that jurassic-Rover would bark when danger approached the camp or village. Folks began to selectively breed the dogs to get an offspring with a louder bark, better temperament, to make a smaller or a larger dog. They were, unknowingly, tinkering with genetics and creating the distinctive breeds that we have today. Eventually, when two pugs “get married,” or two golden retrievers, two poodles, two great Danes for that matter, you get the same breed in return.
If you save your seeds from year-to-year, you have likely developed a stable hybrid-like variety from the original heirloom seeds you received many seasons ago. When you save your seeds each year from the healthiest, best producing heirlooms from your specific micro-climate that grows from your soil and hydrated from your watering patterns on your homestead, you are in effect creating a hybrid that is less likely to develop disease and produce lots of food that is large in size. Heirloom or hybrid?
Today, a hybrid is defined as two varieties from same species coming together to create an offspring with the desired traits from the parent plants being amplified. There is manipulation by man regarding the genetic characteristics of the plant but NOT modification of the genetic code itself. This manipulation is healthy and works with the natural limitations and fundamentals of nature as nature allows.
Many of the vegetables you see at the grocery store in their raw form are hybrids. How many tomatoes do you see? Maybe 3 or 4 varieties…maybe 5 if you count the tiny ones in the plastic containers. They were selected and hybridized for color, durability in shipping and tendency to be uniformed in size. They were likely not hybridized for flavor or nutritional value. I mean have you ever eaten a store-bought tomato? Those few vegetables in the front of the grocery store…or on the side of the grocery store…making up only about 10%-15% of the store’s inventory are the limitations to most of American’s food selection. Many believe that this is all the variety in the world; there is no more to choose from. The only choice they have is whatever corn, tomato, potato, green bean or head of cabbage is sitting in the bin on that particular day…and it taste just the same.
GMO. This stands for Genetically Modified Organism. “Organism.” Sounds creepy. But, GMOs have been a God-send to many. We discovered DNA in 1935, in 1975 a few PhDs, MDs, and JDs got together and created guidelines for the safe use of genetically engineered DNA. 1980 brought the first GMO patent issued by the U.S. Patent Office. Scientist had created a bacteria that would “eat” oil in the event of an oil spill. Things got exciting in 1982. Before 1982, people with diabetes had to use the insulin from pigs in order to control their blood sugar (and they told us we came from monkeys…go figure). In 1982, scientist developed a genetically engineered E. Coli that produced an insulin they called Humulin. WOW!
In 1994, the first GMO food was sold. It was called the Flavr Savr tomato. It was a tomato that took it’s time ripening so they could get it to market on time. I remember in grade school where my teacher, Mr. Brian told us that we needed to keep up with our math and reading because a ketchup company was looking for a way to pick tomatoes after they had ripened and have them survive shipping to the factory. They wanted to make ketchup from a tomato that was vine-ripened and were willing to pay a million dollars for the answer to that problem. I don’t know if that was true or if he was just trying to motivate us to study harder. But I do know that GMO crops are developed to increase yield and generate killer profits. Did I say, “killer?” Scientists concur that they “perceive” GMOs to be safe.
How do they create GMOs? Basically, (and there’s nothing basic about it), they are using mechanisms to intersplice DNA from one species into another species’ DNA to create a variety without genetic precedence. It’s one thing to create a bacteria that makes insulin to offer quality and quantity to a diabetic’s life. But, what they are doing now with our food and the environment…I just don’t know.
The Genetic Literacy Project says this:
“Inserting a single gene from a different organism is not unnatural. In fact, humans (and all species) have shared genes from a multitude of organisms in our DNA already — bacteria, viruses, fish, apes, and Neanderthals are some.
Inserting a fish gene into a tomato does not make a tomato “fishy” in the same way that humans cannot breathe underwater. We share some genes with fish, but that doesn’t make us fish. Indeed, a single gene can hardly be considered “part of” a specific organism at all.”
I can see a the two heirloom tomato varieties Green Zebra and a Red Brandywine having a nice evening and one-thing-leads-to-another and then…voola! A nice hybrid tomato with some of the good attributes of the Brandywine and some from the Green Zebra. But, I don’t care how romantic things get, there ain’t no way a fish and a tomato could “get-it-on.” All life, from the fruit fly to the banana “share” the same genetic sequence of the A,C,G,T code. The way these nucleotide changes occur in the DNA, however so slightly, differentiates us humans and all other living things. It’s not a matter of what genes are similar (NOT shared), it’s a matter of the arrangement of these genes that makes a fruit fly a fruit fly and a banana a banana (believe it or not but our genes are 60% similar to the fruit fly and 50% similar to a banana). A brick is a brick but how you stack the bricks makes all the difference in the world.
When scientist say, “humans have shared genes from a multitude of organisms in our DNA already — bacteria, viruses, fish, apes, and Neanderthals are some,” it make me a bit angry. When natural occurrences cause natural process to form (trying to be neither religious or otherwise in this regard), that’s stability. When you start mixing up genetic material from creatures that are not in the same kingdom, that’s not natural at all. There are eight major taxonomic ranks. Starting with Life > Domain > Kingdom. Plants and Fish go their own ways here. Period. And you still have Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus and then (finally) species. And that’s the group that nature confines the genetic “trading” to.
You can probably tell that I am not a fan of GMOs when they are created to take the place of our heirloom and hybrid varieties. Yes, I’ve heard the arguments about GMOs and how they allow for an increase in food production to feed the hungry. Folks, those “hungry” are still hungry. The GMO products are being created but no one is shipping them over…that would cut into the profitability and that’s the underlying motivation for the production of GMO products.
Currently there is only about 10 species of plants that have genetic modification with MULTIPLE varieties and each with their own genetic manipulation and associated patient.
Right now I think the only animal that is GMO and approved for sale in the US is a salmon. They were able to genetically engineer an Atlantic salmon with a gene from a Chinook salmon in order to take advantage of a growth hormone and create a fast-growing salmon.
But, there are many others that have been created and are waiting for a farm near you:
Chicken that lays eggs from a different variety
Enviropig what sports DNA from a mouse and E.Coli (wouldn’t it be funny if it were a frog instead of a mouse? Just sayin’).
Glittering Gold Seahorses (believe it or not, the modifiers have a reason for this)
Mostly Male Tilapia
They have come up with reasons for their “monkeying around with genetics.” But, there comes a point where just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
As for my homestead, we will grow heirloom in order to produce a true-to-type variety and secure our seed stock. We will grow hybrids for as long as we can obtain the seeds from a reliable source in order to protect our food production each year. Growing a combination of the two types secures your “now” and your future. I am sure that I will end up getting a cross pollinated variety with a GMO variety at sometime in my life. So, I do my small part. I grow my own and what I purchase, I carefully attempt to avoid GMO products and stick with either natural and organically grown / raised.