When selecting seeds for the garden or farm, it’s important to know the language. Often times, definitions of “heirloom”, “hybrid” and GMO get confused. To avoid confusion and to help in your seed selection, we’ve provided definitions for some of these terms:
Hybridization is a natural process. Often times an insect or bee pollinates a plant with two parents. The result is a plant that has different characteristics than either of its parent plants.
Breeders have adopted this practice and will intentionally cross-pollinate two varieties of a plant. This process is carefully controlled so that plants achieve the best combination of characteristics. Sometimes, achieving the right set of characteristics can take years.
For example, a breeder (or grower) may be interested in a plant that has an increased size or is more resistant to disease. To achieve this, breeders will select parents that will potentially contribute a quality to their offspring, such as uniformity. This process can be repeated until the desired characteristic is achieved.
But hybrid seeds can still be produced organically. Being a hybrid does not mean that a plant is genetically modified at the cellular level. Hybrid seeds still have drawbacks, however.
In order to create a hybrid variety, the parents must be crossed each time to create the same combination of characteristics. So, hybrid seeds do not “reproduce true,” which means that plants grown from seeds (i.e., the second generation) may or may not share the desired characteristics selected from the first generation.
If it is a true hybrid, the process remains natural. But you do have to rely on seed companies, because the seeds you save are not likely to produce the same results.
To advertise and legally sell a hybrid product, the parent plants must be identified and the pollination controlled. Hybrid seeds generally cost more but will not produce consistent characteristics after the first generation.
Many vegetable varieties are open pollinated. Open pollination occurs in one of two ways: cross-pollination or self-pollination.
Reproduction by cross pollination occurs between two plants when insects, wind or water facilitate the pollination process. Beets, brassicas, carrots, corn and squash are all cross-pollinating vegetables. To keep the varieties true in pollination, these vegetables are often kept in isolation in the field.
Self-pollination occurs when the male and female reproductive parts are contained within the same plant and can therefore initiate pollination without travel. Beans, lettuce, peas and tomatoes are self-pollinated vegetables and do not require isolation in the field like cross-pollinated vegetables. These varieties are also the easiest for growers who want to save seeds from year to year.
Open pollination is different from hybridization because it does not involve human intervention. As a result, open-pollination is often considered more natural.
The definition for heirloom plant varieties is less clear. Generally, when a plant is grown from seed, only open-pollinated varieties are considered heirloom. Unlike the hybrid types, open-pollinated seeds will display most of the same characteristics as the parent plant.
Heirlooms varieties are preserved by growers who save seeds from year to year to preserve a desirable trait. Some heirlooms are past down from one generation to the next, and some experts say an heirloom must be at least 50 years old.
Heirloom varieties often produce different shapes, colors and flavors, but heirloom growers also know these plants tend to vary in size.
Unlike hybrid seeds, GMO seeds are not created using traditional breeding methods. Instead, GMO seed varieties are created using high-tech solutions in the lab, and include the complicated processes of genetic engineering, often extracting material from one type of plant and inserting it into another type of plan. The inserted genetic material can provide a desirable trait such as resistance to a disease or increased vigor. GMO crops most used in the U.S. are soybean and corn. They have been engineered for increased vigor but also resistance to glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide. Due to excessive use of glyphosate there are economically important weeds that are now resistant to this herbicide.
GMO corn often includes a “B.T. gene” which stand for bacillus thuringiensis to prevent larvae from feeding on the crop. The B. thuringiensis is a natural bacteria but when inserted into a crop that crop is a GMO crop, which is not permitted in organic production systems.
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” which means that a plant’s DNA is altered in a way that does not exist in nature. A genetically modified organism will have different DNA than its parent.
Sometimes scientists will also insert the genes of another plant or variety to change the way a plant reacts to its environment.
Plant GMOs are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service under the Plant Protection Act. The form of regulation varies depending on the type of GMO involved.
Here is a site if you seek more information or want to ask a question.
Seed Sources and Databases
LocalHarvest provides a grassroots directory, moderated by its users, listing over 30,000 family farms and farmers markets that feature local food.
This resource outlines steps necessary to save and maintain organic seed collections from your garden.
Wildtype Native Plant Nursery
Wildtype specializes in growing plants native to Michigan and offers ecological design and public consulting services.
The Non-GMO Sourcebook is a “farm to fork” directory of non-genetically modified (non-GMO) food and agricultural products. The website is both a buyers’ guide and a companion to the print edition, which is updated annually and now features over 750 non-GMO suppliers and service providers.
Organic Vegetable Seed Suppliers
This is a vegetable seed resource from Pennsylvania Certified Organic, including supplier contact and location information.
Organic Field Crop Seed Suppliers
This is a field crop resource from Pennsylvania Certified Organic, including supplier contact and location information.
The Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative consists of researchers and educators from Oregon State University, Cornell University, Washington State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Organic Seed Alliance, and USDA who are collaborating with more than 30 organic farmers to breed new varieties and determine the varieties best suited to organic production systems. Their variety trials focus on open-pollinated tomato, cabbage, sweet corn, winter squash, and pepper varieties. Their Organic Variety Trial Reports include reports of these five crops among others.
Albert Lea Seed
Based in Albert Lea, Minn., this family-owned seed store offers a selection of Viking Brand seed, farm and organic seed – seed corn, soybeans, cool-season grasses, pasture mixes, alfalfas, small grain, annual forages, native grasses and forbs. Visit the site for product lists as well as crop and seed resources. You can call 507-373-3161.
American Organic Seed
American Hybrid and Organic Seed is an independent, family-owned and operated company which supplies certified organic and non-gmo seeds and services. Their catalog includes a wide variety of small grains, cover crops, row crops, pasture mixes, forages and inoculants.
Blue River Hybrids
An independently owned and operated business, Blue River Hybrids provides seed grown and conditioned for organic farmers. Their product guide, available online as PDF, offers organic seed corn, soybean and forages. Or call Eric Rod in Blissfield, MI. 517-402-3395.
High Mowing Seeds
They offer 100% organic seeds on line since 1996.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Johnny’s has been farming organically for over 40 years and has been a MOFGA Certified Organic Seed Handler since 1979. They offer varieties of certified organic vegetable, herb, flower, fruit and farm seed created using natural crossing methods for hybrid seeds that are healthy and safe.
Michigan Certified Seed offers Michigan grown field crop and cover crop seed from farmers across the state. By purchasing it from them you are assured of its % germaintion and % variety. They offer some organic varieties that varies from year to year. You can also call them at 517-332-3546 to find out what is in stock.
Prairie Creek Seed
A supplier of conventional, treated and organic seeds, Prairie Creek Seed serves the Midwest with a full line of corn hybrids, sorghums, alfalfas, grasses and cover crops.
Welter Seed & Honey
The Welter family seed store offers a large selection of forage products and certified organic seed in Onslow, Iowa. Its product catalog is currently available online. Or call 563-485-2762.
GMO-free Seed Companies
- Annapolis Valley Heritage Seed Co.
- Baker Creek Seed Co.
- Botanical Interests
- Bountiful Gardens
- Diane’s Flower Seeds
- Fedco Seed Co.
- Garden City Seeds
- Gourmet Seed
- Heirlooms Evermore Seeds
- Heirloom Seeds
- High Mowing Seeds
- Horizon Herbs
- J.L Hudson
- Kitchen Garden Seeds
- Lake Valley Seeds
- Livingston Seeds
- Local Harvest
- Mountain Rose Herbs
- Native Seeds
- Natural Gardening Company
- New Hope Seed Company
- Organica Seed
- Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
- Renee’s Garden
- Richters Herbs
- Sand Hill Preservation Center
- Seed Saver’s Exchange
- Seeds of Change
- Southern Exposure
- Sow True
- Tiny Seeds
- Tomato Fest
- Trees of Antiquity
- Turtle Tree Seed
- Underwood Garden Seeds
- Uprising Seeds
- Victory Seeds
- Wildseed Farms
- Wood Prairie Farm