Hybrid Seeds vs. GMOs

Are hybrids and GMO’s the same? NO.

This is one of the most common questions we get from concerned gardeners and foodies.

Understanding Hybrids

Hybrids are produced either naturally in nature, or intentionally by humans using the natural process found in nature. It occurs when the pollen of one plant is used to pollinate another plant of a similar species or variety.

For example, pollen from Corn Plant A pollinates the ears of Corn Plant B, producing a hybrid offspring – Corn Plant C. The offspring takes some of its genetics from each of its parent plants, but is unique from either.

Hybrid

Some seed companies, especially those that have been around for decades, often have their own hybrid varieties that they produce each year for their own catalogs. Their “brand name” corn, tomatoes, peppers, etc. are produced by two specific parent plants to produce the offspring, with the assumption that all the seeds of the offspring will inherit the same qualities and thus consistently grow the same plants and produce.

Hybrids are usually created with the intention of producing a plant with the best characteristics from each of the parent plants. Perhaps Parent A shows resistance to a particular fungal disease, and Parent B produces large, sweet ears of corn. It is hoped that the offspring, Plant C, will produce large, sweet ears of corn AND be resistant to the fungal disease.

Some hybrids DO produce stronger, healthier, more productive plants, but this isn’t always the case. However, the seeds are still viable, and will produce for you.

Hybrids have a couple of disadvantages, in general. If you choose to save your seeds from a hybrid plant, there’s no guarantee that they’ll produce the same plant the next year, even if you pollinate the flowers of a hybrid plant with its own flowers. Hybrids are also much like mules – they usually produce stronger, more vigorous plants in the first hybrid generation (H1). But any seeds saved from the H1 plants are likely to be weak and less vital.

This is one of the main reasons why seed catalogs like to sell hybrid varieties. They have a built-in factor creating a return customer. If a gardener likes a particular hybrid, they’re going to come back to the seed catalog every year and buy new seeds, rather than save seeds from their beloved hybrid and risk having a weak garden output the following year.

Hybrid seeds CAN eventually become stable varieties in themselves, and produce strong, healthy plants.

It can take several years, but if you want to try, here’s how you would do it:

  1. Take care that your plant is pollinated only by its own flowers, or by the flowers of another plant grown from the same hybrid seeds.
  2. Save the seeds for planting the next year.
  3. Plant the seeds in your garden, and carefully observe which ones grow with the same traits as the hybrid plant you like so well. Carefully pollinate the flowers of that plant with its own flowers, or with flowers of another plant exhibiting the same traits.
  4. Save the seeds for planting out again the next year.
  5. After repeating this process for at least 2 or 3 years, it is likely that the variety will become ‘stabilized,’ and produce the desired traits year after year.

This process has been used for decades, even centuries, by gardeners and farmers to produce the best seeds for their gardens and fields. Many of them began as hybrids, and are now known to us as heirloom varieties. The genes carried in the seeds of these heirloom varieties have become very stable and produce the same plants consistently, year after year (when they’re pollinated by other plants of the same variety, of course).

If you’re looking for organic seeds, just know that both hybrid and open-pollinated (or heirloom) seeds can be grown organically…. or not.

The Great Divide – GMOs

GMOs, however, are in a category all its own. A GMO corn plant isn’t produced by breeding one corn to another corn, or even by injecting the DNA of one corn plant into another corn plant.

GMOs are produced by taking the genes of a totally different plant, or even an animal or bacteria or fungi, and inserting it into the plant.

For example, there is a bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) that produces a toxin that dissolves the gut tissues of the corn borer.

GMO developers took genes from this particular bacteria and inserted them into the corn plant, so that the corn would produce the toxin in its tissues.

This is known as Bt corn. (The Bt stands for B. thuringiensis.) These corn plants are pesticides. Literally. They are registered as pesticides.

With their genes totally changed in this manner, it makes the seed highly variable in the 2nd generation. This also produces a built-in return customer factor.

Farmers used to save their seeds from year to year, which saved them an enormous amount of money over the years. With GMO seeds, however, farmers have to purchase new seeds (in the TONS) to sow their fields each year because the seeds are patented and they cannot legally save seed to sow the next year. The promise was, originally, that the GMO seeds would end up saving them money in the end, by decreasing the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. This hasn’t been the case, as we’ve seen, but many of the original seeds, before the days of GMOs, have been contaminated by the genes of GMOs, and most farmers don’t have their original seeds anyway.

I really don’t want to go into the GMO controversy any more than that. But this should explain to you how very different hybrids are from GMOs. Are you planning on planting hybrids in your garden? Go for it. You’ll have to buy them again next year, but at least they’re natural. 🙂

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3 Responses to Hybrid Seeds vs. GMOs

  1. Jenna Ewert March 1, 2016 at 12:35 pm #

    Your description of what makes GMOs different from hybrids in the second generation is not correct.Most GMOs are hybrids, so if you kept the plant that had the insect resistant trait for several generations, just like desirable traits in your watermelon example these traits will “segregate” and you can keep them. The only reason you have to go back to the company that made them is legal reasons covered by the fact that the special insect resistance is patented.

    PLEASE email me if you have other questions. I am a plant breeder. I work on vegetables.

    Reply
    • Anni March 2, 2016 at 8:57 pm #

      Thanks for your addition.

      Reply
  2. Paul August 6, 2016 at 2:22 am #

    Another GREAT educational masterpiece. It feels like going to school with friendly authoritative teachers. A rare privilege. Thank you.

    Thanks also to Jenna for your useful clarification.

    Reply

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