With all the talk about GMO (genetically modified organism) fruits and meats out there, a lot of people are more and more concerned about what they are eating. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about what the difference is between GMO foods, Hybrid plants, Open Pollinated, and Heirloom plants. I’ll do my best to break down the differences and help to alleviate the confusion.
First let’s talk about GMO. GMO plants and/or animals have had their DNA (genes) modified using technology called genetic engineering. Basically, scientists insert desirable genes from plant A into the cells of plant B to get a plant B that is superior in a specific ways. Geneticists select genes, often from VERY different species, for disease resistance, resistance to chemicals, drought tolerance, or other desirable characteristics and modify them or insert them into other plant cells to produce a plant that has those desirable characteristics. This sounds like a good idea at first, but we do not know the long term effects on our health when eating these GMO plants and animals. There are tons of articles out there about the possible dangers of GMO foods and I encourage you to research the subject further especially if you buy and eat a lot of processed foods.
Now that we have the GMO subject out of the way, let’s discuss the subject of Hybrid plants. Hybrids are plants that have two different parent plants of the same species (i.e. Brandywine tomato x Cherokee Purple tomato). Basically you take pollen from plant A and fertilize the egg cell of plant B (either by humans, insects, or wind) and you get a fruit that has seeds in it. When you plant those seeds, you get plant C. Plant C will have some traits of plant A and some traits of plant B. Hopefully it will have the best traits of both plants and you’ll get great fruit off of plant C the next year. If you take the seeds from plant C and plant them the next year, you will probably not get a plant that is the same as plant C. You may have a plant that is similar to plant A or plant B or something completely different. It all depends on which traits show themselves in the next generation. Hybrid plants and animals produce fruits and meat that are completely safe to eat. Hybrids occur in nature all the time and are a process of natural evolution. Humans can hybridize fruits and animals as well and some of the results make for delicious eating. Sungold and Purple Haze tomatoes are two hybrids I grow in my garden. Both are hybrids created by humans and both have some of the most delicious fruit I grow each season. I do not save seed from them as they will not likely grow plants that resemble Sungold or Purple Haze.
Open Pollinated or OP plants are a subject that most beginning gardeners do not know, but they should really understand. The vast majority of the tomato plants I grow and sell are Open Pollinated plants. Tomato plants have flowers that are considered “perfect” meaning that the flowers have both male and female parts (sperm and egg). The way most tomato flowers are designed causes them to pollinate themselves without the aid of insects or humans. A gust of wind, or a shake from the gardener can cause the flower to pollinate itself. Basically you have plant A reproducing with plant A and the resulting seeds will produce plant A. This is the way it works 95% of the time for most varieties. Every now and then an insect or heavy wind could cause pollen from a nearby plant to pollinate another plant. Then you would have a hybrid seed and plant next year. It happens pretty rarely with tomatoes because of their flower design, but happens quite often with peppers and squashes because of their flower design. For this reason, I do not save seed from squash or peppers unless I bag the blossoms to prevent insects or wind from carrying pollen and causing a hybrid seed to be produced.
The last topic I want to discuss is the topic of “Heirloom.” Heirloom plants and animals are very popular now and for lots of good reasons. Unfortunately some people use the term incorrectly or think that anything that is not “Heirloom” is not safe to eat. Before World War II, most all gardeners grew open pollinated plants and animals. They saved seed from their plants and bred their own animals for generations and passed them down year after year. After WWII, there started a trend of growing hybrid plants and animals. Many people stopped growing the old varieties and started buying seed from seed companies to grow these new hybrid fruits. The first super popular hybrid tomato was “Big Boy” it debuted in 1949 and produced round, red, blemish free fruit and was more disease resistant than the old varieties. The seed companies did a lot of advertising and convinced gardeners to grow only these new hybrids, Over time, the old varieties became less popular and the hybrids filled peoples gardens. In the last decade or so, there has been a resurgence of people wanting to do things the way their grand parents and great-grandparents did. By most definitions, heirloom plants have had to have been grown without change for 50+ years. Some of the most popular heirloom tomatoes are Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine Red, Aunt Ruby’s German Green and others. Many popular tomatoes are not technically heirlooms. A staple in our garden, Black Cherry, was introduced in the mid 1990’s and is not technically an heirloom although it is celebrated by many heirloom enthusiasts and is on it’s way to becoming a true heirloom in a few decades Heirlooms are primarily grown for their flavor. Many have low disease resistance, produce lower yields, and have a very short shelf life. This is why people are growing them in their gardens as they are very expensive to buy if you can even find them. Seeds from heirloom tomatoes should grow plants that produce identical to the original tomato although there is a small chance for a cross…surprises in the heirloom garden are definitely not a rarity.
GMO = Scientifically altered fruit
Hybrid = Crossed fruit and seed will probably not grow true to type
Open Pollinated = Naturally pollinated fruit and seed will probably grow true to type
Heirloom = Grown for 50+ years without changes
I hope this helps to straighten a few issues on gardening terminology out for you. If you have any questions, feel free to comment!