Open-pollinated or hybrid? Conventional or organic? Heirloom or AAS winner? GMO or non-GMO? If you are a new gardener, the pretty pictures in the seed catalogs may influence your purchase more than these confusing terms; if you're an experienced gardener, you may habitually choose one type of seed over the others. Pry a little into the meaning of these words, and you inevitably open the door on the history of agriculture.
Not that I'm going to try to recapitulate that here. My aim is to demystify these labels, starting with the most recent: GMO, Genetically Modified Organism. Genetically modified plants have had genes from other species inserted into their DNA, usually to provide a specific trait. Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans (93% of the US crop in 2010) have glyphosate resistance introduced into their genetics via an agricultural bacteria, which allows farmers to spray the herbicide (also known as Roundup) without damaging the main crop.
Emotions run high on the topic of GM seeds. Honestly, I have mixed feelings (although this article on new USDA plans made me gulp), but here are a couple of reassuring facts for the home gardener who does not wish to grow GM veggies:
1. No GM seeds are currently available for purchase by the backyard gardener. In fact, only a few GM varieties – including some sweet corn and a handful of zucchini -are grown commercially for the fresh market. Subject to change, of course.
2. A number of seed companies have signed the "Safe Seed Pledge" asserting that they "do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants." You can find a list of those companies, here.
This brings me to the term:Organic. Many of the "safe seed" companies focus on selling and promoting seed that has been certified organic by the USDA. I buy organic seed when I can, to support organic seed growers. And, it might be wise to buy seed produced under the same conditions in which it will be grown. Conventional seed producers follow a carefully regulated regimen of fertilizers and pesticides not duplicated in home gardens. Organic seed production, emphasizing soil health, may be closer to garden conditions. I'd be interested to hear if anyone has run side-by-side trials of conventional and organic seed in a garden environment.
Next up, Open-Pollinated or Hybrid.