A World of Controversy Inside A Tiny Seed

On Friday I promised I’d talk a bit about GMOs, heirlooms versus hybrids  and organic seeds.  Since Friday’s post was already way too long and this is not a political blog, I will try to keep this as short as possible.

I think I adequately covered the reasons why someone might want to choose organic seeds in Friday’s post.  One fabulous source that I did leave out, however is the Hudson Valley Seed Library.  For those of us in cooler climates (and of course in the Hudson Valley region) this is a great, locavore source.  For the rest of the country it is still a great organic choice.  Online catalog only.  I grew a few things from there last year.  Not only do they have fun choices, but their Art Packs (for which you pay a bit more) are true works of art and things of beauty.  And this time of year, who doesn’t need more beauty is our lives?

Okay, now on to the more complicated stuff.  Many of you may know the difference between a hybrid and an heirloom but just a refresher.

A hybrid seed is one that has been selected and specifically bred–and bred here is the key word–over time to have certain traits.  It may have been crossed and re-crossed with the best plants of its type so that it is a superior variety.  It may have specific resistance bred into it–in the case of tomato seeds, we are accustomed to seeing a long list of capital letters after certain hybrid varieties for example, noting resistance to certain tomato diseases and funguses (the common VFNT).  You may also be familiar with “Round-up™” ready corn, but that’s different–I’ll talk about that below.

Heirlooms on the other hand, are varieties that are a certain age–generally at least 50 years old–think of them as the “antiques” of the gardening world.  Generally they are not readily available commercially, but that is changing because gardeners are demanding them.

They are what’s known as “open-pollinated,” meaning the wind or bees will pollinate them–but that of course leads to issues.  I grow anywhere from 6-10 heirlooms in very close quarters in a raised bed.  Since they are all “open-pollinated” if I were to save my seed (which I don’t do because a package of seeds lasts me longer than I can use it up, even sharing it with friends) these tomatoes would not be the same varieties I’d planted the prior year–they most likely would have cross-pollinated with each other!

So if you are saving seeds from an heirloom, be aware that it may be cross-pollinating with other heirlooms in your garden!

And finally we get to the thorny issue of GMOs or genetically modified seeds. This where the “Round-up Ready™” seeds come in.  Chances are, most home gardeners will never knowingly plant GMO seeds.  But if they garden anywhere near large stands of corn, wheat, soybeans, alfalfa or perhaps even certain types of grass in the years to come, they will be growing GMO plants.

Genetically modified is a complicated laboratory derived process that involved gene splicing–not something the home gardener can accomplish (yet anyway).  So far, it has primarily been done by Monsanto, the maker of Round-up™ which is a brand name of glysophate, a weed killer.  Monsanto spliced a gene into different seeds making them resistant to Round-up™ so that the fields could be sprayed with Round-up™ killing the weeds and not the valuable crops.  Sounds pretty good, yes?

To big agribusiness, yes it certainly did and millions of dollars of these seeds are sold every year.  In fact, just last year, a new type of Round-up Ready™ crop, alfalfa, was approved for sale, making it the sixth or seventh such crop on the market (I’m not sure if the grass is for sale yet or still in the testing and lawsuit phase). Interestingly enough, Monsanto is in court as I write in New York where over 80 plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment to stop them from this sort of thing.

So why is this bad?  The problem is the pollen from these crops does not stay in the fields–and organic growers are complaining that their fields are being contaminated by Round-up™, among other things.  See above lawsuit.

There is also the argument that the corporation, Monsanto, is harming third world growers.  But you can Google that one yourself.  I’ve already gone on long enough!

On Friday we’ll actually talk about seed starting and how to get started once you’ve made your seed selections!

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