First, let me address the subject of organic seed. For years, the word “organic” loosely referred to plants produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, but there was no real regulation. In 2002, the USDA established the National Organic Program, which set national standards for the term “Certified Organic.” Seeds that are certified under this system are approved through a regular inspection process by a USDA-accredited certifier. The seed packages carry the USDA organic symbol.
Note that any seed labeled “treated” has had synthetic, non-organic pesticides or fungicides applied, but it is rare to find this type of seed in retail garden centers.
Home gardeners do not need to seek out certified-organic seed. If you maintain healthy soil, follow organic techniques and, when necessary, use organic fertilizers and organic, non-toxic pest and disease controls, you are gardening organically. Only if you are selling your crops as “organic” will you need to use only certified organic seed.
Hybrids vs. GMO
Plants are pretty sloppy when it comes to reproduction. They crossbreed with plants outside their own species, in some cases distant relatives, to create hybrids.
Hybrids have been recognized for well over 100 years. They actually occur in nature without any human intervention. In the mid-19th century, Gregor Mendel’s experiments in Austria resulted in “controlled hybridization.” Today, hybrids of all kinds are available to not only gardeners but commercial growers as well.
A hybrid plant can be identified by the “X” in its botanical name. For example, “Leyland cypress (X Cupressocyparis leylandii)” is a naturally occurring hybrid of Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and Nootka cypress (Callitropsis nootkatensis).
Plant breeders have always taken advantage of the ease of crossing different parent plants to create hybrid babies with desirable traits. Tomato breeders, for example, are constantly seeking improved disease resistance, earlier maturity, better taste, color and so on. But all of this experimenting takes an enormous amount of time (usually years), not to mention expense.
Any way you look at it, the process of creating a hybrid is a natural act, since it could have happened by wind, insects or other means. Hybrid plants produce viable seed that in most cases can be planted like any other seed.
It is important to understand that the results of planting seeds taken from hybrid plants will be unpredictable. In many cases, the seeds will produce plants unlike either plant they came from. The only way to maintain the traits of the first, “F1 generation” hybrid is to repeat the original crossing. This is what seed companies do every year to be able to offer the same hybrid seed again and again.
On the other hand, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created by implanting genetic material from another life form, maybe a bacterium, into a different one. Both hybrids and GMOs are products of genetic manipulation, but hybrids rely on a natural process whereas GMOs are completely the result of human technology. At this time, there are no GMO seeds available for retail sale in the United States.
In order for open-pollinated seeds to form, pollen must be transferred from the male organ of the flower to the female organ. This transfer of pollen must happen regardless of whether the male and female parts are on the same flower (“perfect”) or if the flowers have male and female parts on different flowers or even different plants of the same species (“imperfect”). This transfer of pollen can happen by wind, pollinating insects, birds, even a gardener with a paintbrush.
When seed is saved from an open-pollinated plant, the new plant, next season, will have the characteristics of the original plant (or plants of the same species) and its fruit will remain the same. The problem here is that open-pollinated plants must be isolated to keep from producing accidental hybrids. If you have many varieties growing in the same garden (tomatoes are a classic example), a bee or other insect could transfer pollen from one variety to another, cross-pollinating them and causing the next generation to be a hybrid.
An heirloom seed is simply an open-pollinated variety that has been in cultivation for over 50 years. Over so much time, the variety has become adapted to a particular location and produces the same desired fruit or other traits dependably year after year. The question always arises as to whether heirlooms are better tasting, easier to grow, more disease resistant. The answer is, not always! Many heirlooms will not do the same, or as well, when planted outside the area where they originated. And some have negative traits such as disease susceptibility that hybridization has solved.
Weather conditions further complicate matters. We experience this often in the Philadelphia area — too much heat early in the spring, severe winter conditions, excessive wet months and hot, dry summers are just a few examples of what can alter the growth and production of our plants and the taste of our fruit.