Heirlooms, Hybrids, and GMOs

Many new gardeners are overwhelmed with the choice of seed available. There has always been a great variety of fruit and vegetable seed; but with modern horticultural techniques and genetic engineering, we have more kinds of seed than our ancestors could imagine. So, what type of seed should you plant? Well, seed can be divided into three main groups: heirlooms or open-pollinated, hybrids, and the new kid on the block, GMOs.


The first group of seeds to consider are heirloom seeds. The most important characteristic of an heirloom is that it is open-pollinated, which means it is pollinated by nature via the wind, bees, insects, etc. Although there is some disagreement as to dates, an heirloom is a strain that was developed prior to 1945-1951 (some say before 1920). The seeds have often been handed down from family member to family member, generation to generation. Commercial heirlooms are older cultivars that have been saved and handed down, then obtained by a seed company. Heirlooms are not used in large scale agriculture, but in family farms and gardens.

Seeds saved from heirloom plants will produce plants with the same DNA as the parent (unless you planted two varieties close together and they cross-pollinated). So, if you want to save your seed, plant heirloom seed and make sure that you don’t plant different varieties of the same plant close together.


Hybrid seed is the cross-pollination of two varieties of the same plant, whether arbitrarily by nature or specifically controlled by man. On seed packets, you may notice in the name the symbol F1. That means the seed is the result of the first cross-pollination of two unrelated open-pollinated plants. The goal of creating man-made hybrids is to improve the plant’s characteristics, i.e. better yield, greater uniformity, increased disease resistance, etc. Because of this, hybrids are predominantly used in commercial agriculture, though they are used by home gardeners, as well.

Seeds saved from hybrid plants will NOT produce plants with the same DNA as the parent. Actually, you won’t know what you’ll get. That’s why seed companies have to create new hybrid seed from cross-pollination every year. If you don’t want to save your own seed and don’t mind buying seed every year, hybrid varieties are just fine to use in the garden.


GMO seed is seed in which genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Specifically, it is the deletion of genes or the insertion of genes that are from a different species. Whereas hybrids can exist in nature when the wind has cross-pollinated two varieties of plants, GMO seed never occurs in nature.

The biggest example of GMO seed is corn. Scientists from Monsanto have inserted DNA from bacteria into the corn DNA, attempting to make a disease-resistant corn. Ninety percent of  the corn grown by farmers today is genetically modified and found in many of the processed foods we purchase.

Because GMO seed does not occur in nature, there is concern as to its affect on humans when consumed. Medical research studies done in the past two years have shown organ failure and tumor growths in rats that have been feed GMO food.

We do not currently have a law that mandates labeling of GMO foods and GMO seed, which is a problem. Monsanto is the heavy hitter when it comes to GMO seed production, so if you want to avoid GMO seed, you’ll have to avoid anything produced or sold by Monsanto and its subsidiaries, such as Seminis.

Here’s a list of seed companies affiliated with Monsanto: Seminis Products and Seed

Monsanto has also purchased the names to several heirloom and hybrid seeds, which you may want to avoid in the future (if for no other reason than to NOT support Monsanto): Monsanto Owned Seed Names

Here’s a list of seed companies that are NOT affiliated with Monsanto or Seminis: Non-Monsanto owned seed companies

Here’s a list of companies that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge in 2012: Safe Seed Resource List

Whether you decide to plant heirloom seed or hybrid seed – or both – please purchase from companies that support maintaining the integrity of our seed supply. In my mind, helping nature along a bit via cross-pollination is one thing. Altering a plant’s DNA is quite another.



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