Hybrid Seeds. Genetically-modified (GMO) seeds. Heirloom seeds. The labels often confuse people. Not a single day passes without some well-meaning reader leaving a comment like this one: “GMOs are perfectly safe. Farmers and gardeners have been cross-breeding seeds like this for thousands of years. Take off your tinfoil hats, people!”
Um… no. Just no.
Farmers and gardeners have NOT been cross-breeding seeds like this for thousands of years. What those well-intentioned readers fail to understand is the fundamental difference between hybrid seeds and GMOs.
Hybrid Seeds: What are they?
Farmers and gardeners have been cultivating new plant varieties for thousands of years through selective breeding. They did this by cross-pollinating two different, but related plants over 6 to 10 plant generations, eventually creating a new plant variety.
The process required patience, but was rewarding. By selectively cross-pollinating related plants in this way, farmers could create varieties that were healthier and stood up to the farmer’s micro-climate — their soil, their weather patterns, their predatory insects.
Yet in the mid-nineteenth century, Darwin and Mendel discovered a method of controlled crossing that can create these desired traits within just one generation. This method produces what’s known as F1 hybrid seeds.
These hybrid seeds are just as natural as their historic counterparts; they’re still cross-pollinating two different, but related plants.
Hybrid Seeds: The Consequences
The biggest disadvantage of hybrid seeds is that they don’t “reproduce true” in the second generation. That means that if you save the seeds produced by F1 hybrid plants and plant them, the plant variety that will grow from those seeds (known as the second generation) may or may not share the desired traits you selected for when creating the first generation hybrid seed.
I like how Rebsie of Daughter of the Soil describes it:
When two dissimilar varieties are crossed, the result is a hybrid which will often be bigger, brighter, faster-growing or higher-yielding than either of its parents, which makes for a great selling point. But it’s a one-hit wonder. Subsequent generations don’t have the same vigour or uniformity, and the idea is that you don’t save seed from it, you just throw it away and buy some more. This is bad for the plants, bad for the garden and bad for you, but the seed companies make a packet out of it and gain increasing control of what we buy and grow.
While there may not be anything inherently wrong with this process, it does keep you dependent on seed companies year after year since you can’t save your seeds and expect the next generation of plants you grow to be identical to the first.
While this is a small nuisance to a home gardener, it can be devastating to subsistence farmers around the world.
In fact, this is precisely what happened. Dawn from Small Footprint Family writes:
When the peasant farmers grew these new hybrids, they were indeed more productive, even though they required more fertilizer and water. But when they collected and saved the seed for replanting the next season—as they had done for generations and generations—none of it grew true to the parent crop, little food grew, and these poor farmers, having none of their open-pollenated traditional varieties left viable, had no choice but to go back to the big companies to purchase the hybrid seeds again for planting year after year.
U.S. companies like Cargill intentionally disrupted the traditional cycle of open-pollinated seed saving and self-sufficiency to essentially force entire nations to purchase their seeds, and the agricultural chemicals required to grow them.
Most of these poor subsistence farmers never had to pay for seed before, and could not afford the new hybrid seeds, or the new petrochemical fertilizers they required, and were forced to sell their farms and migrate to the cities for work. This is how the massive, infamous slums of India, Latin America, and other developing countries were created.
By the 1990s an estimated 95% of all farmers in the First World and 40% of all farmers in the Third World were using Green Revolution hybrid seeds, with the greatest use found in Asia, followed by Mexico and Latin America.
The world lost an estimated 75 percent of its food biodiversity, and control over seeds shifted from farming communities to a handful of multinational corporations.
GMO Seeds: What are they?
Unlike hybrid seeds, GMO seeds are not created using natural, low-tech methods. GMO seed varieties are created in a lab using high-tech and sophisticated techniques like gene-splicing.
Furthermore, GMO seeds seldom cross different, but related plants. Often the cross goes far beyond the bounds of nature so that instead of crossing two different, but related varieties of plant, they are crossing different biological kingdoms — like, say, a bacteria with a plant.
For example, Monsanto has crossed genetic material from a bacteria known as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) with corn. The goal was to create a pest-resistant plant. This means that any pests attempting to eat the corn plant will die since the pesticide is part of every cell of the plant.
The resultant GMO plant, known as Bt Corn, is itself registered as a pesticide with the EPA, along with other GMO Bt crops. In other words, if you feed this corn to your cattle, your chickens, or yourself, you’ll be feeding them an actual pesticide — not just a smidgeon of pesticide residue.
GMO Seeds: The Consequences
On the one hand, biotech firms like Monsanto argue that the GMO seeds they create are so unique that they need to be patented — something that has far-reaching and devastating effects on the global economy. (Just ask Percy Schmieser.)
Yet on the other hand, the same firms argue that the GMO seeds are “substantially equivalent” to other seeds, so they have no need to be labeled, tested, or otherwise regulated.
So far, the U.S. government has allowed biotech firms to get away with this crazy juxtaposition. However, some testing of GMO seeds has been done in other countries, and it takes investigative journalism found in books like Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating to expose just what’s at risk.
Vickie Mattern of Mother Earth News summarized it this way:
The trouble is that nobody knows how these unnatural new organisms will behave over time. The seed companies that develop these varieties claim intellectual property rights so that only they can create and sell the variety. In some cases, companies — such as Monsanto — even refuse to allow scientists to obtain and study their GM seeds. For some crops, such as corn, wind can carry the pollen from GM varieties and contaminate non-GM varieties. And there is no mandatory labeling of GM content in seed, says Kristina Hubbard, advocacy and communications director for the Organic Seed Alliance.
Hybrid Seeds vs. GMOs
In short: Hybrid Seeds are nothing to fear, but you may not want to support them given that they fail to breed true and have caused so much global havoc. GMO seeds are far more unnatural and likely to cause harm — both to your environment and your health.
How to Avoid GMOs
Unfortunately, because GMOs aren’t currently labeled in the U.S., you have no way of knowing whether or not you’re eating them. Roughly 85% of all grocery store foods contain GMOs, and there only a handful of sure-fire ways to avoid them:
1. Opt to buy single-ingredient certified organic food.
2. Choose Non-GMO Verfied labeled foods.
3. Grow your own open-pollinated, heirloom variety plants.
4. Know your farmer and ask pointed questions about his or her growing practices, then opt to support GMO-free growing.
(photo by CIMMYT)