On Heirlooms, Hybrids, and GMO’s

We had the great pleasure last night of a visit by a neighbor from a street down who had just discovered our community free pick garden. They came to the door to introduce themselves and we ended up talking for maybe 30 minutes about gardening. At one point he asked about GMO’s in the garden. At other times I’ve been asked about the heirlooms, the other end of the spectrum.

Personally, I haven’t done much seed saving yet, since it takes knowledge I haven’t developed yet. I’ve chosen to focus on other areas of gardening, and I’ve been immensely happy with the seeds I get from Johnny’s Seeds. While saving seeds may be valuable to begin developing a sub-variety uniquely adapted to our specific growing conditions, there is also an increased chance of having a large percentage of poor-quality seeds that don’t germinate. On the other hand, today there are a wide range of hybrid varieties developed for superb flavor and nutrition along with increased disease resistance and plant vigor. I haven’t yet considered a genetically modified variety of seed, but in part that’s because the home market isn’t even close to being of interest to the producers of such seeds. But under the right conditions, I certainly might. My driving considerations are: 1) flavor and nutritional values; 2) disease resistance and plant vigor, minimizing the need for fungicides, pesticides, etc.; and 3) social considerations such as the business ethics of the seed producer, patenting laws, economics, etc.

Here’s my understanding of the terms and reasoning for the above summary:

  • Open pollinating seeds are produced through natural mechanisms of pollination. The male flower produces pollen that is carried by wind, bees, butterflies, birds, humans, etc. to the female flower. For some families of plants like lettuce, most or all varieties are open-pollinated. For others like tomatoes, you can get some varieties of either. These are the varieties with the most reliable results if you save seeds from plants. There are two types of open-pollinated seeds:
    • Self-pollinating species like beans, peppers, tomatoes, and lettuce inbreed from generation to generation with little harm. But they also don’t change overly much from generation to generation. Since they inbreed, you can grow several varieties side-by-side and still save their seeds knowing you’ll get the parent variety instead of a mix of a couple of varieties. At the home-scale, this is the easiest varieties from which to save seeds.
    • Cross-pollinating species beets, cabbages, squash, and melons more readily exchange pollen between plants. These plants exchange more genetic material and might show greater change between generations. But it also means that when you save seeds, you might be getting a mix of two or more related varieties unless you isolate the plants that can cross-pollinate from each other. This requires space to do most reliably, something my small yard and close neighbors who might grow a different variety do not allow to successfully save seeds.
  • Heirlooms are open pollinated seeds that are passed down from person to person, or open pollinated seeds of a certain age — for instance a variety originally developed 50 years ago, or prior to World War II — or perhaps a variety labeled and marketed as an heirloom by a seed company regardless of its pedigree. In other words, without knowing more the label tells us nothing. As such, this never comes into consideration when I’m purchasing seeds, although I may grow some because they have certain characteristics of interest to me.
  • Hybrid seeds are produced when humans strategically work to cross-pollinate two varieties of a species. The first generation of this cross, called F1, has characteristics of both parents. Hybridization has been used to develop varieties that accentuate certain characteristics. Some are of value to industrial farms — for instance the ability to pick before unripe and then ripen after shipping, or the ability to ship without bruising. Other characteristics are of potential interest to the home gardener — for instance increased flavor or disease resistance. With a small space, plant rotation won’t fully confuse fungi, for instance. Having plants with resistance to wilt, blight, and other diseases can be critical, and I’m more likely to get that from a hybrid than an open-pollinated variety. Plus, the F1 often demonstrates a plant vigor common from the first hybridization. This can be useful fighting off the effects of harmful insects, too little or much water, etc. Interestingly, a common myth is that you can’t save the seeds of a hybrid. In many varieties you can, but you will get an unpredictable expression of characteristics of the parent varieties. In other words, the genetic expression is highly unpredictable, which can actually be valuable to breeders to further develop a unique variety suited for certain conditions.
  • Genetically modified (GM) varieties are created by strategically selecting the genes of different varieties to achieve desired traits. Hybridization is a science that takes time — often multiple growing seasons — to practice. Genetic modification can achieve similar results in a much shorter time frame — potentially a single growing season. Cisgenic modification uses genes from the same species and is essentially the biotechnology version of hybridization. Transgenic modification takes genes from different species that would never be crossable in nature, and as such is a way of taking hybridization where it couldn’t go before. At a purely technical level, humans have been practicing some form of intentional manipulation of genetic material since we first began intentional farming. Genetic modification is but another step along the spectrum of this intentional manipulation. As with hybridization, some traits are of benefit primarily to industrial-scale farmers, while others may be of interest to the small- or mid-scale gardener/farmer.

Many of the arguments against GM varieties are really more arguments against patenting laws, unethical business practices, and more broadly extreme forms of oligarchy capitalism. To argue against the technical aspects, especially cisgenic modifications, is to enter into dialog on weak footing in my opinion. Steve Novella and Neil deGrasse Tyson have come out strongly in favor of GM generally to counter these weak arguments. 

On the other hand, when we begin to raise concerns regarding patenting laws, unethical business practices, and economics, we begin to raise concerns about seed companies and industrial-scale farming more generally, whether or not they are involved in the production of GM seeds. Vandana Shiva’s arguments against GM fall much more into this line of reasoning. No technology is neutral. Every technology is shaped by its designers, distributors, marketers, and stakeholders more broadly. It’s further co-created by those who begin to use, and adapt, the technology. But some technologies more closely align with the values and goals of the co-creators and afford greater opportunities for appropriation.

Genetically modified varieties aren’t a singular thing. Different  genetic pools, different biotechnologists, different funders, different companies, different laws, different farmers, different environments, mean we need to take each socioteechnical system — the social factors plus the technical factors of a specific GM variety in use — into consideration singly to properly evaluate its ability to help us achieve our self-identified goals of human flourishing. This human flourishing cannot be considered exclusively by economic growth, nor  by impact on the human species alone. A human development approach appreciates a multi-dimensional array of factors. But given the complexities of such approach, we often fallback to the shortcut of dismissing all GM’s, or even idolizing loose terms like heirlooms and organic farming. But without a more sophisticated and nuanced approach, we won’t be able to sustainably meet the human development needs of earth care, people care, and fair share.


About mwolske

I'm a Senior Research Scientist in Community Informatics at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois.
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