Gardening & Homesteading Making a Difference

The Difference Between Open Pollinated Seeds, Hybrids and GMOs

The Difference Between Open Pollinated Seeds, Hybrids and GMOs

It is common for people who support or defend genetically modified foods (GMOs) to argue something along the lines of, “What’s the big deal? Humans have been genetically modifying plants for thousands of years.”

Unfortunately, this claim can only be made by someone who either doesn’t understand seed breeding, or who is outright trying to deceive you. Here’s why…

Today, seeds are bred in only one of three ways: 1) in an open pollinated environment, 2) through a hybrid cross, and 3) through genetic modification. Let’s look at each, one at a time.

What are Open Pollinated Seeds?

Open pollinated (OP) seeds are seeds that are produced from natural, random, open pollination by wind, birds or insects, resulting in plants that are naturally varied.

Open pollinated seed saving is the oldest of the three methods of producing seed. Gardeners and farmers have been carefully selecting open pollinated seed varieties that have beneficial traits (like drought tolerance or good flavor) for as long as we have been doing agriculture. All heirloom seeds are open pollinated, so they can be saved and passed from generation to generation.

When a gardener or seed breeder raises open pollinated plants, she has to keep pollen from other related varieties from entering the patch (generally accomplished with distance from the other variety).

If successful at keeping the open pollinated variety isolated, she or he will be able to select and save seeds from the very best plants in the patch, and trust that they will grow out next season with the same characteristics as their parent plant.

This is how most of the sweet, juicy, large fruits and vegetables we enjoy today (like corn, potatoes and squash) were bred and selected over many generations from their bitter, small, barely edible ancestors.

What are Hybrid Seeds?

Open Pollinated Seeds Vs Hybrids

The term “hybrid,” which you’ll often see in seed catalogs, refers to a plant variety developed through a specific, controlled cross of two parent plants. Hybrids are often spontaneously and randomly created in nature when open-pollinated plants are naturally cross-pollinated with other related varieties; plant breeders just direct the process to control the outcome.

The advantage of growing hybrid seed compared to inbred, open-pollinated lines comes from the ability to cross the genetic materials of two different, but related plants to produce new, desirable traits that can’t be produced through inbreeding two of the same plants.

For example, most of today’s livestock and companion animals were created through crossing different breeds to create hybrids—from Guernsey cows to hairless cats to the Labra-Doodle!

A whole new world of food crops became available as a result of hybridization, including Canola, grapefruit, sweet corn, canteloupes, seedless watermelons, “burpless” cucumbers, as well as tangelos, clementines, apriums, pluots and other unique foods.

In fact, in addition to edible novelties, today’s methods of hybridization are helping us breed all sorts of drought and pest tolerant plants that are helping us survive and adapt to a changing climate.

Hybrids have another advantage too. Developing a non-hybrid, open-pollinated variety using classic plant-inbreeding methods can take six to ten generations. That’s a lot of time!

However, using the method of controlled genetic crossing devised by Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century (Remember those Mendel Box genetic tables from high school biology?), plant breeders can now produce hybrid seed that combines the desired traits of two pure parent lines in the first generation.

The oldest and simplest form of plant hybridization is corn detasseling. In this method, three rows of the father breed of corn are planted, and then one row of the mother, and over and over. The mother rows are detasseled (have their pollen removed) ensuring that any pollen they receive comes only from the father rows. The mother’s seeds can then be harvested as what is known as an F1 (first generation) hybrid.

Most hybrid seeds today are created in this low-tech, low-cost way, usually under row covers in isolated fields or in greenhouses. Some hybrids are created in labs using high-tech methods as well, but hybrids do not cross the species barrier.

There is another major distinction between open pollinated and hybrid seeds: If you grow out an open pollinated seed variety, keep it well isolated, and save it for seed, you will get offspring that are very similar to the parents. But, if you purchase an F1 hybrid and you save it for seed, and then attempt to grow it out, the next generation (F2) will be a very random mix of the parents DNA, and all the plants will be wildly different.

This means you can save open pollinated seeds, adapt them for your area over many growing seasons, and enjoy caring for the plants through their entire life cycle as they produce for you from generation to generation. But, if you grow an F1 hybrid seed and you like it, you must go back to the source you got it from if you wish to grow it out again.

Big seed companies like F1 hybrids because the process gives them proprietary ownership of each new variety. And because seed from F1 hybrid plants won’t produce uniform offspring, gardeners must purchase new seeds each year.

A Brief History of Hybrid Seeds

Hybrid seeds offer many benefits to U.S. and European farmers who have the money to buy them year after year, including greater yield, improved pest resistance, and more. However, the widespread introduction of hybrid seeds has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster for developing countries.

Launched in the 1960s, the Green Revolution aimed to increase grain yields worldwide by promoting the use of hybrid seed varieties that could be densely planted and required irrigation, mechanization and the heavy application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to get higher yields.

The underlying objective of the Green Revolution was to increase farm productivity in countries perceived to be susceptible to communism because of rural poverty and hunger. But rather than raising production by alleviating the highly unequal land ownership in these countries, the Green Revolution favored technological fixes.

To accomplish this agenda, the U.S. government promised countries like India and Mexico that the “new miracle seeds” would produce more food and lift their farming peasants out of poverty. U.S. agricultural and chemical companies even gave away free bags of hybrid seed and fertilizer to entice small subsistence farmers to try them.

Unfortunately it was all a dirty trick.

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.

Many other farmers committed suicide, having lost everything they had, including the very means to feed themselves and their families. And once those farmers sold or abandoned their land, guess who bought it all up? That’s right. Agribusiness.

Hybrid seeds were the seminal foundation of corporate-controlled, industrial, petrochemical-dependent monocultures.

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.

What are Genetically Engineered Seeds?

Hybrid Seeds Vs GMOs

In both open-pollinated and hybrid seeds, we have always been breeding crops that were genetically able to breed, like two types of stone fruit, or two varieties of squash, or two breeds of dog. But, unlike open pollinated seed selection or hybridization, GMO technology allows us to “play God” in a way that even Mother Nature hasn’t dared.

Today, with sophisticated and very expensive lab techniques (like retroviruses and gene guns), we can now manipulate and combine the DNA of species that could never, ever breed in nature—like fish and tomatoes, Brazil nuts and soybeans, or bacteria and corn.

We can even genetically engineer cows to produce human breast milk! (Ew.)

Combining or splicing together genes from different organisms in the lab (without actually sexually breeding them) is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered,” or “transgenic.”

GMO corn developed by Monsanto, for example, includes genetic material from the bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which kills European corn borers by punching holes in its gut lining. This means that every single cell of the GMO corn plant contains the DNA of a bacteria that damages the digestive tract of whatever eats it. And because it is engineered into every cell of the corn plant, it doesn’t wash off.

Though biotech companies swore that Bt always breaks down during digestion, Bt has been found in the gut lining and bloodstream of humans.

And while Monsanto swore that glyphosate (Round-up) was safe to eat and couldn’t get into ground water supplies, it is now listed as a probable carcinogen, and found in the waterways and groundwater in every country where it is sprayed, often at levels higher than allowed in drinking water.

Glyphosate can also be found in the urine and blood of people worldwide, and is implicated in the epidemic of birth defects in Argentina.

While, like all technologies, there is potential for recombinant DNA technology to do some good (GMO insulin, for example), the vast majority of GMO crops have been created solely to prop up corporate-controlled, industrial agriculture, force farmers to buy patented seed year after year, and promote the sale of toxic chemicals like glyphosate (Round-up).

Whatever you believe, don’t believe for one second that GM crops are anything like other forms of seed breeding. Genetically modified foods are truly Franken-foods, and have no precedent in nature. Only GMO crops cross the species barrier, making them the biggest ecological experiment ever conducted on the planet.

A Brief History of GMOs

seed-company-ownership
Click to enlarge

Between 1997 and 1999, genetically-modified (GM) ingredients suddenly appeared in about two-thirds of all U.S. processed foods. This change to our food supply was fueled by a single Supreme Court ruling. It allowed, for the first time, the patenting of life forms for commercial profit. Since then, thousands of applications for experimental GM organisms have been filed with the U.S. Patent Office alone, and many more abroad.

The first commercially grown genetically modified whole food crop was the Flavr Savr tomato, which was made more resistant to rotting by Californian company Calgene (later bought by Monsanto). The tomatoes were released into the market in 1994 without any special labeling.

Later GM crops included insect resistant Bt cotton and herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready soybeans, both of which were commercially available in 1996.

Between 1995 and 2005, the total surface area of land cultivated with GMOs had increased by a factor of 50, from 17,000 km² (4.2 million acres) to 900,000 km² (222 million acres), of which 55 percent were planted in Brazil, mostly on land that had been tropical rainforest.

By 2006, 89% of all U.S. soybeans, 83% of cotton, and 61% of corn were genetically modified varieties. Today in 2013, U.S. farmers can barely even find non-GMO corn, soy or cotton seed anymore, unless they buy certified organic seed.

For crops like corn, canola and alfalfa, wind can easily carry the pollen from GMO varieties quite far to contaminate non-GMO and even organically grown varieties on neighboring farms. And there is no mandatory labeling of GM content in seed.

Related:

Why GMOs Are Unsustainable

Hybrids are created through guided natural reproduction, while GMOs are the product of unnatural, high-tech methods used to create untested organisms that would never occur in nature.
Like open pollinated seeds, many GM seed varieties can be saved and expected to produce uniform offspring the following season. But GM seed cannot be saved because all GMO seeds are patented. It is actually illegal to save GMO seed.

You see, GMOs are so expensive to produce (thousands of times more expensive than hybrids or other publicly bred seeds), without patents, biotech companies couldn’t make their money back, much less hold the world hostage to their product monopoly.

Subsistence farmers in developing countries, just like during the Green Revolution, are even worse off—now more dependent than ever on having to purchase seeds year after year—and the chemicals that go with them. That is, if the effort hasn’t already impoverished them off their land in the process.

Biotech companies are so rabid about protecting their patents that many U.S. farmers have been sued by Monsanto when GMO crops were found illegally planted on their fields.

Unfortunately, most of these farmers did not intentionally plant the patented seed; rather, the GMO pollen drifted onto their property via wind or insects, and contaminated their non-GMO crops. This didn’t stop Monsanto from winning their cases against them though, and shutting those farmers down.

Pollen contamination has also affected U.S. wheat and alfalfa exports, and crops that farmers did not know were contaminated have been turned away by countries that do not GMOs in their food. This has cost farmers a pretty penny, for sure!

Lastly, and perhaps most gravely of all, because of pollen drift and genetic contamination, we are starting to permanently lose food biodiversity. Control over seeds and the very ability to produce food at all continues to concentrate even further into the hands of just a few multinational corporations.

Notice a theme here?

Every time big chemical companies get involved in agriculture, none of their efforts are to grow food in a healthy, natural or sustainable way. Everything they create is meant to destroy regional food systems and local self-reliance, and foster dependence on expensive technologies, purchased seeds and more use of chemicals and drugs.

With GM techniques, we can grow rice that contains pharmaceutical drugs in every cell of the plant, we can grow soy and corn that can survive gallons of toxic chemicals dumped on it, and we can force cows to produce twice as much milk as they were ever meant to, requiring widespread use of antibiotics to deal with udder infections.

Sadly, as if we learned nothing from history at all, Bill Gates wants to export patented GMO seeds to Africa as the next big Green Revolution—this time to supposedly lift African subsistence farmers out of poverty.

And all of this we call “Progress”!?! Progress for multinational corporations, maybe…

Related: (See Can Organic Farming Feed the World? to learn why GMOs will actually prevent us from feeding the world.)

Why We Are All Guinea Pigs for GMOs

So far, mostly commodity crops with GM traits—such as Canola, corn, soy, cotton, alfalfa and sugar beets—have been approved by the USDA for use, primarily in processed foods and animal feeds. The exceptions are rBGH-treated milk, and GMO papaya, zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, and sweet corn, which are available—without labels—at your grocery store.

It is estimated that over 85% of all the food on supermarket shelves contains GMO ingredients.

The trouble is that nobody knows how these unnatural, new organisms will behave over the long run. The seed companies that develop these varieties claim intellectual property rights so that only they can create and sell the variety. In most cases, biotech companies like Monsanto even refuse to allow independent scientists to obtain and study their GM seeds.

And the USDA doesn’t test them either before approval; they rely solely on the self-testing done by the biotech companies themselves.

Nevertheless, many independent scientists worldwide are studying GMO crops, and the mounting evidence against GMOs is looking very grim.

From the development of allergies, tumors and reproductive disorders in lab animals, livestock and possibly humans, to the destruction of beneficial soil organisms and good soil structure that make it possible to grow food; from the creation of Superweeds and Superpests, to the dozens of peer-reviewed studies proving the toxic effects of Round-Up (glyphosate) on human health, GMO crops are looking far worse for people and planet than we ever imagined.

So, if anyone ever tries to convince you that hybrid seeds and GMOs are the same thing, or that genetic modification technology is “just another” form of seed breeding, you will know the truth: Hybrids are created through guided natural reproduction, while GMOs are the product of unnatural, high-tech methods used to create untested organisms that would never occur in nature.

About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.

48 Comments

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  • After crossing between two parent plant (same species but different variety), we get F1 generation. This F1 generation is known as hybrid. The F1 hybrid is a variety that has been produced by the carefully controlled cross breeding of two parent plants specially chosen for their different desirable qualities such as plant type, disease resistance, uniformity, crop yield, unique color and so on.

  • Very good article. The pro-GMO advocate trolls always declare, “We have been eating GMOs for 10,000 years” and similar statements. Utter crap. I always respond with a list of definitions of GMO, starting with none other than the one from the beast itself:

    As defined by Monsanto. “Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) – A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism the genetics of which have been altered through the use of modern biotechnology to create a novel combination of genetic material. GMOs may be the source of genetically modified food ingredients and are also widely used in scientific research and to produce goods other than food.” Typically, that is what people are referring to when they use the term GMO on these pages.
    Then I usually list a few more similar definitions from other biotech companies. I mean, hey, they love those biotech companies so much, they ought to accept the reality of what a GMO is.
    Then I usually follow that up with a definition of what hybridization is from the site “Science Daily.” Now I am even more inspired by your article.

    One technical glitch: I tried to print out each section, but each time, no matter how I tried it, the first section was the only one that would print. Strange.

    • Thanks for your comment! Yes, Monsanto is owned by Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, which says a lot about their agenda. They are trying to breed food that contains vaccines and other drugs, and there are many vaccines and other drugs currently on the market already contain GMOs.

      I’m not sure all of this is totally bad. For example GMO insulin has been a revolution for people with Type 1 diabetes, and GMO papaya has saved the papaya from virtual extinction. (Note that neither of these products were developed by biotech companies, rather they were developed by universities.) However, I think informed consent via labeling and proper application of the technology is key here: For example, there is no need for current GMO crops that are pesticide resistant or contain pesticides, knowing what we know about farm ecosystems, climate change, and human health. A GMO created just to sell more drugs and chemicals is a bane on the earth, IMO.

      I’m not sure why you’re having trouble with printing. Maybe try printing from the menu bar of your browser, rather than the print button on the page?

  • “we have always been breeding crops that were genetically able to breed, like two types of stone fruit, or two varieties of squash, or two breeds of dog.”

    Actually, plants can be hybridized to a much larger degree than most animals can. You can even create a new hybrid species in a single generation, that’s unknown to happen with animals. I don’t know if there are instances of such species being grops grown for food, but that wouldn’t be a problem by itself. Nor are GMOs not being restricted by ontologic compabitiliy of somewhat closely related lineages, allowing to insert or remove specific genes. It’s certainly not more “playing God” than making Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards from wolves, and even probably of more benefit to humankind, on the whole, specially considering toy breeds with tendencies to have genetic problems. Not more “playing God” than having slowly engineered lineages only from the genes that were available within that lineage and closely related ones, through selective breeding — that’s where vitually 100% of our food comes from, not wild/God-given natural species. Not more “playing God” than building houses, having agriculture, and cooking food, either. But, who knows, maybe we should go back to caves and eat everything raw, like God really wanted us to. And just wild variations. Maybe even worms and other parasites are good for you, God wouldn’t have made them otherwise… we shouldn’t play God trying to get rid of them.

    • Interesting point of view. There are many who believe that our hubris (or playing God) is the reason we are in such dire straits as a species, with mass extinctions, massive resource depletion, scarce water, climate change, overpopulation and the like. Maybe something needs to change about “playing God” before its too late for humans. What else is possible?

  • Nice article. It’s too bad that using open-pollinated seed is becoming more precarious as time goes by, and we (human family) lose biodiversity as well. GMO promoters make it out to be a time-saving process of breeding, but in practice, many researchers skip all related species and put a gene from an animal into a plant. For example, lytic protein gene (for fireblight resistance) in apple and pear (1990s), as if they are naive to the fact that fireblight resistance/susceptibility is a polygenic trait.

    • Thank you for the comment. The lab techniques we have for hybridization are quite rapid now, so it is a myth we need GM for speed. What GMOs are, more than any other type of seed breeding, are EXPENSIVE. They use the expense an excuse for patents that keep the technology secret and the profits coming back to the biotech company, just as they do with pharmaceuticals.

  • Thank you for the great info. I was buying vegetable plants and some were marked “hybrid”. I ask a worker what the difference was between hybrid and GMO and she said they were the same. I chose heirloom varieties. I’m glad I researched and found this site. I feel like going back to inform her. I will return to the article and research some links. I feel like the more knowledge I get, the more conspiracies I find. More people need to be aware. Thanks again!

  • A good article. Thanks for taking the time to do the research!! IMHO there is a place for gmos such as cotton and ethanol production but when it comes to food production where nutritional quality and density are foundational factors we need to stick with open-pollinated/heirloom varieties that have been adapted to local environmental conditions. Bottom line is that gmos don’t belong in the food system. Have you done any research on Biophotons? Fritz Popp of Germany developed a machine that measures the coherency of light contained within biological organisms and can determine which plants grew in the wild, which were grown organically, which were grown commercially, which were grown hydroponically and which are gmos with wild foods being the most coherent and gmos the least coherent. Pretty interesting stuff 😉 I have a book that is written in German that I haven’t had translated yet but hope to in the near future – it’s called “The Message of Food” (Die Botschaft der Nahrung). Biophotonic research is a huge game changer in Western understanding about the processes of Life as it opens up a scientific doorway into many of the eastern philosophies. Anyway – thanks again for the great article.

  • We would love to feature this article on our blog to share this great information with our readership. May we have your permission to do so? Thank you.

      • can u explain Open-pollinated Varieties for me the exact meaning of this in 1 or 2 sentence .thank you . i am waiting for your answer .

        • From the first paragraph of the article: “Open pollinated (OP) seeds are seeds that are produced from natural, random, open pollination by wind, birds or insects, resulting in plants that are naturally varied.”

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