Monday, February 10, 2014

Seed terms defined

I've heard and read a lot of misinterpretation of terms associated with seeds, so I'm offering a very quick and easy explanation of the following: open-pollinated, heirloom, hybrid (also referred to as "F1"), certified Organic, Genetically Engineered and Genetically Modified Organism.

If you grow open-pollinated (OP) varieties, you can save seeds for next year's garden and the plants' offspring will be very similar to the previous year's generation. If you try to save and sow seeds from your hybrid varieties, which tend to have special characteristics such as disease resistance, next year's plants will likely not have the exact same characteristics of its "parents," just like human children.

Heirloom is a special name for an open-pollinated variety that has historical significance (it's usually at least 50 years old), particularly to a specific geographic region. Many food connoisseurs prefer the unique flavors of heirlooms over hybrids, and their interesting shapes, colors and textures add a richness to our lives and our plates. That said, in some cases, heirlooms can be harder to grow and less practical than hybrids, although that mainly pertains to large agricultural systems that require vegetables to be stored and shipped over long distances. According to Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, lab tests have shown that dark-colored tomatoes, as well as yellow ones, have more nutritional value than the typical store-bought tomato. He says that these heirlooms have the ability to take up a greater quantity and array of minerals from the soil. Gettle has collected ancient heirloom seeds preserved in indigenous communities in the far corners of the world that have evolved with the local ecosystem and hence have superior pest resistance. I also appreciate Seed Savers Exchange's discussion of this topic.

Ruby Orr heirloom tomato -- seed is from Graham County, N.C.
Organic seeds are ones that have been grown on farms certified under the USDA's National Organic Program, which prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers among other substances that present concern for optimal ecological health. The National Organic Program currently prohibits certified Organic farmers from using Genetically Engineered (GE) seeds, which are developed in high-tech labs and contain genes from organisms that the plant would never interbreed with in nature. Thankfully, GE seeds are currently unavailable for sale to home gardeners as far as I understand. GE seeds are typically sold to large-scale corn, soybean, sugar beet, cotton and alfalfa growers.

The big confusion is the difference between the ways various groups define Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). I'll let you read for yourself the two varying definitions at these two sites, Home Garden Seed Association and the Master Gardener Extension program, but basically I've decided to avoid the term "GMO" so that it is not confused with "hybrid." If I refer to the type of seed that has many of my customers concerned for the sake of societal health, ecological systems and ethical business practices, I say "GE seed." Note this terminology is not yet widely adopted, so when food or seed companies say they are "non-GMO," they mean "non-GE."

Hybrids—such as tomato varieties bred for disease resistance in this blight impacted region, developed just down the road at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River—can have their benefits. I'm willing to give up a little of the rich taste of heirlooms if I can grow a plant without using organic disease and pest controls, as even these have small health and ecological concerns. (Or better yet, I'll plant both heirlooms and hybrids at the same time to guarantee a successful tomato year, which is often determined by forces we can't predict). My rule of thumb is to try out the OP and heirloom varieties first (and of course choose seed from growers who use Organic standards whenever possible), and if I don't have good luck with the OP seed, then I'll grow a hybrid the following year. Meanwhile, I'm continually seeking heirloom varieties that have been selected year after year for their good disease and pest resistance.

Mountain Magic, a late blight-resistant variety.
Sometimes the issue is not with the variety itself, but with our growing techniques. Therefore, I will tweak my garden system (or perhaps buy the seed from another source) before entirely giving up on an OP variety. All of this experimentation takes time, and luckily we have each other to swap stories and tips on the best performing varieties.

One last complexity to the ethical dilemma—many organic growers have made a commendable attempt to not put any dollars into large seed companies with which they have strong ethical concerns. That means avoiding buying products that deliver any profits to these corporations, including the seeds that these companies hold the trademark names for—even some heirloom varieties.

If I know that purchasing a particular seed variety will send even a small amount of money to companies in which many of my customers go to great lengths to avoid, then I will avoid buying that seed. Thankfully, there are hundreds and hundreds of seed choices out there, and new ones that are continually being developed for organic farmers that will replace the seeds that unethical companies now profit from. Not that we shouldn't be concerned that, according to Gettle of Baker Creek, 90 percent of seed varieties have disappeared since 1900. It's an ever-changing and complex issue, but I do my best to keep up with the latest developments so I can be sure I'm serving my customers who want to make wise consumer choices.