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Gardening Making a Difference

The Difference Between Open Pollinated Seeds, Hybrids and GMOs

gmo-plants

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. Almost all heirloom seeds are open pollinated.

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.

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.

Next page: A Brief History of Hybrid Seeds 

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47 Comments

  • 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.”

  • Thank you for well written information on open pollinated, hybrid and GMO seeds. This year our topic of discussion is GMO seeds. I am a Maasai living in Germany active in a Evangelical church.

    • Nearly all synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (upon which all industrial agriculture currently depends) is made using the Haber-Bosch process which uses natural gas (petrochemical) for the hydrogen and nitrogen gas from the air at an elevated temperature and pressure in the presence of a catalyst to form ammonia (NH3) as the end product.

      There are HUGE sustainability and environmental health problems with this, the least of which is dependence on natural gas and fracking to create this fertilizer. You can read more about this big problem here.

  • What an excellently methodically written article. I would simply say “A MUST READ” topic for all Farmers & people engaged in Food industry. I came across it while studying about types of seeds. I knew superficially about the differences but was not absolutely sure about it. I’m an Indian Merchant Navy Officer cum Farmer cultivating ancestral land. I would highly recommend & pass on the information to as many people as is possible.

  • Thank you very much for this well written post, just came across it today and was glad I did, I’m a Ugandan and the GMO debate is top on the agenda. Several GMO crops have been undergoing confined field trails and currently trying to pass a law that will see the GMOs released to the public. As civil society we have stood our position that we do not want these GMOs. The scientist have now resorted to labeling the Anti GMO activists as uninformed, claiming that there is not big difference between GMO and Hybrids, they are also claiming that these GMOs will not be patented and will be availed to farmers at a fair price as any other seeds on the market. One even noted that GMOs can be grown using organic means. They claim that GMOs are the solution to the changing climate since they are more superior and can even be grown in arid conditions. what is your take on this?

    • The dirty little secret of GMOs is that every beneficial trait they have to date for drought tolerance, etc. comes from traditional breeding. Then they add a proprietary gene to the seed to make it patentable. It is actually substantially cheaper and more beneficial for farmers to select seeds from open pollinated varieties that are locally adapted to the bioregion. Even hybrids are faster and cheaper to produce, though farmers can’t locally adapt those in the same way.

      GMOs have not been adequately tested for safety on humans, so it remains to be seen whether or not they are safe. Whenever you cross the species barrier and combine things that could not naturally combine, you incur risk. And to date, that risk has meant superweeds, superpests, soil biota destruction, harm to pollinators, and more.

      We don’t need expensive GMO technology to feed people. Here’s an alternative view of how smallholders can provide food using methods that are attuned to nature and even more productive than GMOs: Can Organic Farming “Feed the World”?

  • Thank you. This is the most thorough explanation I’ve read about GMOs. Maybe I missed it when I read it, but I’m confused about canola.
    Some things I read say it is hybrid and some say it is GMO.
    I am trying to rid my cupboards/meals of GMO, but I notice that tons of things in Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are made with canola oil.
    I thought I read that canola is a name made up for a GMO product made from rapeseed. Is it safe if it’s organic?
    I really would appreciate your wisdom on this.
    Thanks.

    • Canola is both a hybrid and a GMO. First it was hybridized to be edible to humans. Later it was made into a Round-Up Ready GMO crop. This means you can find organic Canola oil that is non-GMO. However Canola oil is bad for you whether it is organic or GMO, because it is a highly processed product that is high in inflammatory PUFAs, often rancid, and has been found to deplete Vitamin E in the body.

    • Thanks so much. I appreciate your information and checked out the canola article you linked. I used your search tool and typed in “canola” before asking my question, but it said there were no entries. Actually, I’ve searched several other things as well without success. Do you have an archive? Thanks.

  • This is well thought out and written clearly, but I would like to see your sources. Ingesting a modified food does not necessarily mean that the food will modify anything in our bodies in a negative way. It is important that people understand that allowing for two species of crop to interbreed so we can select for a certain trait is no different than putting the genes responsible for that trait into the plants ourselves in a lab. Also, using your example, fish and tomatoes are both safe to eat. Crossing the two (rather, taking a small part of DNA from one and putting it into another) will not result in an unsafe food by itself. The processes involved to do the cross may be unsafe, or maybe the chemicals needed to treat the resultant crop will be unsafe, but the act of the genetic modification ITSELF is not necessarily unsafe. It is healthy to have a distrust of major corporations (especially Monsanto, which is evil), but academic scientists (i.e. ones who are not profiting from their findings) are generally on our side. They have done extensive research that has been published in peer reviewed journals, and have not found CONCLUSIVE evidence to suggest the actual GMO’s are harmful.

    ***** I understand that you are addressing the more important issue, which is that the PRACTICE of developing and using GMO’s are harmful to third world farmers (unfair and dishonest prices, etc), the environment (harsh pesticides, antibiotics needed), and the economy (allowing big corporations to monopolize seed production). I agree wholeheartedly with you in those areas. I just felt the need to stand up for genetic engineering and point out that the simple act of putting DNA from one thing into another isn’t inherently bad. :) It has given us treatments for cancer, diabetes, and infertility, just to name a few.

    “Response to issues on GM agriculture in Africa: Are transgenic crops safe?”
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198699/

    “Genetically modified plants for food use and human health—an update”
    http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2002/9960.pdf

    “[Genetically modified food–unnecessary controversy?]”
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23243917

    • I have written extensively on GMOs here, here, here, and here. You will find ample sources in all the articles.

      Given how many studies have pointed to harm or the potential for harm from many GMOs, either to humans, pollinating insects, soil biota or ecosystems, the precautionary principle should apply. The fact that biotech companies won’t even allow long term INDEPENDENT studies rings alarm bells for everyone, which is part of why so many countries are restricting or banning these crops.

      GM insulin (for example) is very different than a GM crop. GM crops are set upon the wild where they can cross pollinate with wild species (creating superweeds) as well as contaminate non-GMO seedstock, destroying biodiversity. And almost all GM crops to date require heavy application of glyphosate, which is a known human toxin, as well as a destroyer of soil tilth and soil biota. Glyphosate is also largely responsible for GM crops being significantly lower in nutrition than their conventional counterparts. (Glyphosate kills by chelating minerals, making them unavailable to weeds and other organisms that need them.)

      GM crops are also created using viruses and bacteria that “infect” the host cell, allowing foreign DNA to enter it. These viruses and bacteria have been shown to jump the species barrier, and can be found in the gut bacteria of animals and humans alike, possibly contributing to the epidemic of gut dysbiosis, food allergies and malnutrition.

      GM crops that contain BT are contributing to superpests, as well as having a devastating effect on beneficial insect populations. Ingesting BT in GMO crops has also been implicated in gut dysbiosis. And given that GM crops have lower yield and lower nutrition than conventional, all around, GM crops have been a big expensive debacle so far with as yet untold consequences. Not an experiment I want to gamble on, especially when there are so many better options. :)

  • This is really good info on GMO’s! Everyone concerned about the poisones food we are eating NEED to read this. Thanks, Dawn

  • Thank you for this! It’s well written, easy to understand. I have no problem absorbing this knowledge for myself, explaining it is another matter. Shared on Twitter, and emailed a link to my mother-in-law. I am an organic herbalist and I struggle at effectively communicating this to my clients, many of whom are hearing about GMOs for the first time. Do you mind if I link to this page from my website?

  • WOW!! I wonder if there is any link between GMOs and cancer!?! It wouldn’t surprise me if it is very direct. Dawn, thank you for an article that was very thorough and enjoyable to read!

  • Things definitely get messed up when people try to play God. I wish people wouldn’t have messed things up so much for everyone in such areas as those you listed…
    Thanks for sharing this information at A Humble Bumble!

  • This was wonderfully written! I think a lot of people don’t understand the differences between seeds, and don’t realize how harmful GMO seeds actually are. Thank you for sharing this! I will definitely be pinning it!

  • Thank you SO much for this! I started working at a dairy about a year ago. I’ve had a couple conversations with my boss about GMO corn and what-not and he’s always told me that it was just like they’ve been doing for years! I knew that wasn’t true but I didn’t know the differences enough to tell him what they were. Thank you again, now I can tell him the differences!

  • Thank you so much. I have been trying to understand all this for quite sometime but needless to say, it can get a bit convoluted out there. This was so concise, clear, and well-written, that I finally get it now! I will be sharing this.

  • I was so glad to see this post on your green resource this morning because I’ve been wanting a concise article to direct others to that explains OP, Hybrid, & GMO seeds in a brief understand able way. And that covers the dangers of GMO seeds and foods. Thanks so much, I will definitely be sharing!

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