The Difference Between Open Pollinated, Hybrid and GMO Seeds

GMO plants in test tubes and beakers

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It is common for people who support (or know little about) 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 direct DNA modification in a lab. Let’s look at each, one at a time…

What are Open Pollinated Seeds?

Open pollinated (OP) seeds are seeds that are produced from cross-pollinating two of the same variety of plant, usually by wind, birds or insects, resulting in plants that are very similar, but naturally varied.

Open pollinated seed saving is the oldest of the three methods of producing seed. Gardeners and farmers have been carefully isolating, selecting and replanting 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, and 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 largely 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 improved 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 naturally cross-pollinate with other related varieties. For creating hybrid seeds, 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 breeding two of the same plants.

For example, many of today’s livestock and companion animals were created through crossing different breeds to create what are essentially hybrids—from beefalo to mules to the Labradoodle!

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!

Mendel Box demonstrating genetic traits of pea plants

However, building off of the method of controlled genetic crossing devised by 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 DNA manipulation methods as well.

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 to grow. 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-pollinated 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 massive displacement of people from the land to the city 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 developed countries and 40% of all farmers in the developing countries 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 reproduce, like two types of stone fruit, or two varieties of squash, or two breeds of dog.

But today, with sophisticated and 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!

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 (GM or GMO),” “genetically engineered (GE),” 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 their 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.

RoundUp-Ready crops are plants that have had their DNA manipulated with bacterial genes to withstand heavy, repeated applications of the herbicide RoundUp, also called glyphosate.

While Bayer-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 good (GMO papaya or 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 dependence upon toxic chemicals like glyphosate (RoundUp).

Whatever you believe, don’t believe for one second that transgenic GM crops are anything like other forms of seed breeding. Genetically modified foods 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 industry structure infographic
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.
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Monsanto’s Dirty Little Secret

In 2005, Monsanto grabbed 40% of the U.S. seed market and 20% of the global seed market when it bought out Seminis, making them the largest seed company in the world. This purchase gave them control over the genetics for 55% of the lettuce on U.S. supermarket shelves, 75% of the tomatoes, and 85% of the peppers, with strong holdings in beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and peas!

One of the main reasons that Monsanto and other biotech companies have bought up so many seed companies is to use the germplasm (DNA) of those non-GMO varieties in their future GMO products.

You see, the dirty little secret of the GMO industry is that most of the traits that they brag about trying to create (like drought tolerance, greater nutrition, etc.) are actually the product of traditional breeding.

By buying up all the seed companies, Monsanto can literally steal the work done by thousands of gardeners and farmers over generations to produce quality hybrid varieties with beneficial growing traits. Then they can slip a “Round-Up Ready” or other proprietary gene into it and call it their “own”, and sell it with patent restrictions.

This is not a company any gardener would want to support.

Why GMOs Are Unsustainable

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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, many 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 allow 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.

Related: Can Organic Farming Feed 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, some sweet corn, and one variety of apple, 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 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 many GMO crops (especially the ones requiring the use of glyphosate) is looking 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 RoundUp (glyphosate) on human health, most GMO crops are looking far worse for ecological and human health 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: Most seeds are created through guided natural reproduction, while GMOs are the product of high-tech, species-crossing methods used to create untested organisms that would never occur in nature.

While it is possible to use genetic engineering technology in the public interest (with the precautionary principle applied), the majority of GMO crops available today were created by chemical and pharmaceutical companies to create profit and dependency at the expense of people and planet.