What is the difference between hybrid seeds for my garden and GMO seeds?
What Are Hybrid Seeds?
Hybrids are plants that better than either of their parents. For example, the Jonagold apple is a sweet and crisp like its Golden Delicious parent, but with a touch of tartness like its Jonathan parent. Bi-color corn like Sugar and Gold and other varieties are hybrids that are a combination of a sweet white corn parent and an antioxidant rich yellow parent.
If you remember back to high school biology and Gregor Mendel and his peas, he was developing hybrids. Hybrids do occur naturally, in fact, Jonagold apples were originally a natural occurring hybrid. However, it is quicker to develop hybrids in a laboratory setting. Some hybrids are developed for better taste, some for easier travel, some for disease resistance and some just to look more appealing.
Many of our favorite garden seeds like Big Beef tomatoes, seedless watermelons, and Red Ace beets, are hybrids. Growing hybrids can be a garden lifesaver if you live in an area that is very wet or very dry or very cold or very hot. In other words, almost anywhere. Choosing hybrids that have been carefully developed for your area will result in a better backyard garden harvest.
What Are GMO Seeds?
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are used in commercial agriculture. A GMO is developed by using genetic engineering. Although the process is similar to developing a hybrid, there is one striking difference; hybrids can result naturally, although the process could take eons. GMOs will never occur naturally, no matter how long we wait around. Where a hybrid tomato has two tomato parents and a hybrid apple has two apple parents, a genetically modified corn plant occurs by splicing a gene from a bacteria into the corn genetic material. In other words, the bacteria becomes part of the corn.
While an avid gardener can develop his own hybrids in the backyard greenhouse, you are not going to be able to develop your own GMO there.
What Are GMO Benefits?
You certainly can see why commercial agriculture has embraced GMOs. The original GMO, the above mentioned corn, was developed by Monsanto to kill corn borers. If you have ever tried to grow sweet corn and had an ongoing battle with corn borers, the thought of a GMO corn plant might seem miraculous. Now think about growing hundreds of acres of corn. Getting rid of all those corn borers simply by growing a certain variety seems to be a no-brainer. Yields will increase with no extra cost. Sounds almost too good to be true.
Other crops have been genetically engineered to “ignore” the effects of certain herbicides. That means the farmer can grow these varieties, spray the field to reduce weeds, and not have it negatively affect the growing crop.
But….Are GMOs Safe?
Your guess is as good as mine. Many studies point out that GMOs are nutritionally deficient, and that long term use may or does cause all kinds of illnesses. Many other studies show that there are no differences between GMO plants and their hybrid or open-pollinated cousins. Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an organization some refer to as the “nutrition police” has announced that there is no reason to avoid GMOs.
My purpose here is not to definitively say GMOs are safe or not safe. Personally though, I am skeptical. The fact is, not everything is safe for everybody. We all know (now) that tobacco is not safe, and most of us have known people who have died from tobacco exposure. Yet every now and then, we hear a story of someone in their 90’s who has been smoking since the age of 13 and is healthy as a horse. Still, I don’t think any of us would argue that tobacco is perfectly safe for all of us. But, I digress. This section could easily be another post, or hundreds of other posts. So, to move on….
What Crops Are Genetically Modified?
By and large, most of the genetically modified crops are commercially grown corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, and some zucchini. Genetically engineered potatoes, tomatoes, and rice have been approved but are not currently grown in the U.S.
How Do I Avoid GMOs?
First, the good news. Genetically modified seeds are not available to the backyard gardener. That means you will not inadvertently plant your own GMO corn. At this time, GMOs are only available to commercial growers.
The bad news though, is that it is almost impossible to avoid all GMOs. Corn and soy by-products like high fructose corn syrup or lecithin are present in almost all foods, even those that are minimally processed. Unless the food label lists cane sugar, any sugars are probably from genetically engineered sugar beets. The canola oil we use for its heart healthy properties is most likely from a genetically modified plant. The only way to avoid GMOs is to purchase 100% organic foods. For everything. Organic labeling, by its very nature, excludes GMOs.
The worse news, at least in my opinion, is that we don’t know when we are purchasing genetically engineered foods because labeling is not required in the U.S. Most European countries require GMO labeling, and many countries outright ban GMO foods. But here in the U.S. we are kept in the dark. I could go on and on about this, but will let it rest for now.
Hybrid Seeds For The Garden
To follow up on our original concern, hybrid seeds are a combination of two parents to create a better offspring. They can be a lifesaver in the backyard garden, as they are bred for certain characteristics like cold or heat tolerance. Hybrids have been around as long as plants and wind have been around. They are perfectly safe and have absolutely no connection to GMOs.
GMOs are not available to home gardeners – at this time. They may be safe, they may not. In my opinion they haven’t been around long enough for us to make a final decision. But you don’t have to worry about them popping up in your garden, unless you live next to a commercial corn field and the wind blows their pollen, then you might not want to grow corn in your garden.
Questions? Comments? What do you think about hybrids? What are your favorite hybrid seeds? Do you worry about GMOs in your backyard garden?