Friday, April 8, 2011

Heirloom, OP, F1, GM... oh my!

Looking through seed catalogs can be an overwhelming experience. Not only are you tempted to buy every seed that looks good, way more than you'd ever eat really, and probably a few that aren't even appropriate for your conditions... but there's also a staggering amount of acronyms and abbreviations strewn about. For now, I'm going to ignore all the ones related to disease and pest resistances since those seem to change slightly between distributors. But one thing I have noticed on many of the discussion boards and forums is what type of seed to get... and there seems to be a lot of confusion around heirloom, open-pollinated (OP), hybrid (F1) and genetically modified (GM). So here's a little primer...

Heirloom:  This simply means that the variety comes from a stock that has been grown for a long time without any changes in its breeding and it's not one of the common commercial varieties that have been selectively bred for high yield, uniformity, mechanical harvesting, and storage-ripening desired of supermarket produce. Planting heirlooms in your garden helps protect genetic diversity, and they usually taste better, or store better, or grow better in a specific area since people wouldn't keep planting them in their food gardens year after year if they didn't (taste and reliability of their own food being more important than profit and ease of manufacture).

Most heirloom varieties are OP which means that they pollinate themselves via insects, wind, or animals and the seeds produced will most likely (but not always!) breed true (grow a plant identical to the parent). However, (because they are OP) in order to keep an heirloom pure, you have to make sure that it's either the only variety you plant, or that the seeds you save come only from fruits/veg that you know for sure didn't get cross-pollinated by another variety... otherwise you might end up with an F1.

OP - Open-Pollinated: This simply means that the plant variety is capable of reproducing through natural pollination methods, and it's seed should grow offspring that are identical to the parent (some exceptions exist*). OP varieties are important to homesteaders and preppers because it means that they can save the seeds from their own harvests and plant them year after year without having to buy new seed and can be reasonably assured that they'll get the same food from them. However, many (but not all) F1 and GM can reproduce through natural pollination methods but they don't normally bred true in successive generations.

It's important to understand the breeding characteristics of any species you plant. Most plants require both male and female flowers or flower parts to reproduce by pollination. However, some species don't have male and female flowers on the same plant, or the male and female flowers on the same plant won't pollinate themselves, in which case you'd need another plant of the same or similar species to pollinate them (many tree fruits are known to need a "surrogate" for pollination). And other species have both male and female flowers and will freely self-pollinate, there are even some species that are hermaphroditic (contain both male and female parts in the same flower) and they can also self-pollinate (even within the same flower!).

In addition to the male/female aspect, you also have to take into consideration how readily the cross-pollinates with other varieties (or species!). Most beans tend to be strongly inbreeding... they easily self-pollinate and don't usually cross with other varieties even if they are planted nearby. Tomatoes tend to be strongly outbreeding... they are easily pollinated by other varieties of tomatoes, and are genetically capable of crossing with other members of the nightshade family (peppers, eggplants & potatoes) although this is uncommon. Important to note that the fruit of a cross-bred plant is still the same fruit you'd expect... it's the fruit of the hybrid off-spring that will be different. If you have a strongly outbreeding variety in your garden and you want to keep it pure, either don't plant any other varieties, time your plantings so they flower at different times, physically distance them so crossing isn't likely (this is hard, some will cross-pollinate within 3 miles!), cover your rows and hand-pollinate, or bag a few blossoms to hand pollinate and only save the seeds of those fruits.

* Potatoes are one notable exception to the OP rule. Potato seeds produced by the pollinated flowers (as opposed to seed potatoes which are eyes from the tubers) do not bred true. In order to get successive generations of potatoes that are identical to the parent, you need to plant eyes from the potato tubers you collected from the parent. This is actually natural cloning, not really sexual reproduction.

F1 - Hybrids: Contrary to what some people believe, hybrids are not evil Frankenfood (GM). Hybrids are the result of intentional or unintentional cross-pollination of two parents of different varieties that create offspring with a combination of and/or slightly different characteristics than the parent. Doing this intentionally is a form of selective breeding (although only saving and planting seed from plants that have the characteristics you want is also selective breeding, just not crossing). There are advantages to planting F1s in your food garden, namely a phenomenon known as "hybrid vigor". Hybrid vigor means the first generation offspring of a cross grows better/faster, has higher yields, and/or is more resistant to pest/disease than the parent. This can be really beneficial to home food gardener who has less than perfect conditions and needs to grow a lot of food, or a type that maybe wouldn't do so well in their climate (super-early harvest, slow bolting, or extra cold-hardiness). Hybrids are completely natural, even if we humans had a hand in it, because they haven't crossed with anything that nature didn't already allow.

In some cases, intentional crossing results in F1 offspring that are sterile, which is sometimes a desired trait (seedless grapes and watermelons). In most cases, however, hybrids are genetically unstable, will not breed true, and subsequent generations will either become sterile or begin reverting to the parent or continue to mutate unpredictably. Sometimes repeated breeding of an F1 to itself, or to one of the parents, eventually creates an Fn (F2 is second generation, F3 is third, etc) that is stable and breeds true... and another reliable OP variety is born! Planting that seed will now consistently grow offspring with the expected characteristics.

GM - Genetically Modified: This is the evil Frankenfood (and, yes, it's one of my soapboxes). These are genetic mutations created in a laboratory by breaking into and fiddling with the DNA directly. These organisms could never be produced in nature because they combine genetic materials from entirely different, non-compatible, families and sometimes even cross kingdoms (plant with animal, etc). That's a bit of an oversimplification, but rest assured that these modifications (mutations!) are created by separating a gene responsible for a desired trait from the donor (usually a bacteria that may have been GM'd itself to produce it), breaking the DNA chain of the target gamete and inserting that gene into the chain where they think it'll produce the same desired result in the host. One thing we know about genes is that they're often responsible for more than one trait, and where you put them sometimes makes a big difference in what you end up with... which is what makes this practice a bit scary when you really think about it. What else is controlled by that gene, and what else is affected by that placement? Do you know? Do THEY? Do they even care as long as they turn a profit? Now you see why I'm a big fan of making farmers post their fields if they're planting GM crops, divulge the animals they're raising are GM (esp. if they're breeding them out!), and all GM foods being labeled in the market!

Unfortunately, many GM plants enjoy hybrid vigor almost as much (more in some cases) as their natural F1 hybrid counterparts. This means they may outperform other OP and F1 varieties, including escaping containment (becoming a weed) and cross-pollinating those varieties for several miles around where they are planted... which is a big problem if Farmer Jane is growing organic heirlooms down the road and suddenly gets a bunch of Frankenbastards next year (and gets sued by Monsanto for copyright infringement!). In some cases, the providers of GM seed alter them to be sterile or at least have a suicide gene that kills off the plant in some amount of subsequent generations, and the majority of them do not breed true. This means you can't save the seed and plant it next year (even if Monsanto won't sue you for copyright infringement and licensing violation). However, there's really no telling whether or not the sterility and/or suicide switch will actually work as intended if that plant is actively cross-pollinating with other natural varieties in the wild because Nature is nothing if not fickle and resilient. (You all remember Jurassic Park and the frog DNA, right?) Even if the safeguards do function, we've now possibly corrupted, and effectively destroyed, the genetic purity and diversity of any crop which it cross-pollinated within several miles... and several miles of those... and several miles of those... until it's finally noticed. Mutations can be surprisingly aggressive that way. If you do decide to plant a GM in your garden, please do everyone a favor and pinch off anything that even looks like a flower bud before it opens! Or at least don't move anywhere near me! 

Edited to Add: Gungnir just informed me that it seems someone in our government actually showed some rare forethought and made engineering a "suicide", or terminator, gene into a GMO illegal because of the "remote possibility" that the organism would escape containment, cross-breed with other varieties in the wild, and effectively decimate the entire population of that organism. So no terminator genes (that we know of, at least... corporations can do some pretty sneaky things to protect their profits and market advantage sometimes). 

Now, I know there are all sorts of "good reasons" to GM food... resistance to herbicides (Roundup Ready), built-in pest resistance (Bt bred), and additional nutrients or quantity of nutrients (Golden Rice). All of these, on the surface at least, appear to be good, humanitarian advantages allowing farmers to produce more and more nutritious foods more easily for more people. I'm all for feeding the people... but doing a wrong thing for the right reasons... what do they say about the road to Hell and it's paving? In most cases, the things that these crops are being GM'd for are a direct result of our own arrogant adherence to unnatural and unsustainable agricultural practices. Many plant diseases, pest and weed pressures can be addressed through natural F1 hybrids and instituting healthier management practices like crop rotation and fallow fielding with green manure groups, and crop diversity rather than mono-cropping. And let's not forget that a lot of the countries that these "humanitarian" GM crops are supposed to help feed don't even want it because it's GM and current trials aren't going as well as promised!

So, to wrap up:
  1. Get heirlooms if you like them, but be considerate and try to maintain their genetic purity for the sake of diversity. Before spending the extra money, make sure that it will actually grow well in your conditions and produce the yields and flavors you're looking for... just because it's heirloom doesn't automatically mean it's better.
  2. Get OP if you want to save seeds and plant again next year to get the same crop. Doesn't matter if it's heirloom or one of the newer varieties as long as it grows well in your conditions and gives you a harvest that meets your needs and expectations in both yield and flavor.
  3. Get F1 if you have difficult conditions to contend with and you don't intend to save the seed to plant next year, just be careful that it doesn't cross with your other OP's & heirlooms. If you feel adventurous, you can even carefully attempt crossing some of your own varieties to get the hybrid benefits.
  4. Avoid GM if at all possible... like if it's the only viable seed left to plant on the entire planet and there are absolutely no other sources of food available.


Bob from Athens said...

I have to admit that I know very little about GM seeds. However I thought I read somewhere the other day, (now that is a definite statement if there ever was one), that not just anyone can walk in and get gm seeds. That only large licensed planters have access to them. Around my area the closest large planters, (cotton, and sorgum), that might fit this are about 25 miles away. Ia this true about access to the seedds and if so why should I worry about any direct effects gm's have on me? I'm not saying that I support or even like gm, but for my small garden, whats the big deal? Please no lectures on the big overall picture, that is another completely different argument as far as I am concerned. Something I would rather not get into until I know enough to at least speak somewhat intelligently about them.

Plickety Cat said...

Until the copyright/patent expires, your average consumer probably won't have direct access to purchase GM seeds because they want to make sure they're getting their licensing fees and that's only possible and worthwhile from a large producer.

It's just like new medications are prescription only until the patent expires, someone makes a generic, and eventually it goes over-the-counter. Once someone makes a generic, the licensing will get really lax, so smaller producers will gain access. Once it goes OTC, you'll be able to get them from your local store.

But, for now, you and your small garden are safe from accessing and planting GM seeds... unless you have a large producer nearby who is growing GM and his crops happen to cross-pollinate your garden (or cross-pollinate his neighbor, and his neighbor, until it reaches your garden). Or one or two of his GM seeds happen to fall off his truck while he's going past your property, they germinate, and then cross-pollinate with your garden crop. That's not entirely as far-fetched and tin-foil-hatty as people think either. Search for "Contamination of heirloom corn in Mexico" for info on just one instance.

So, what's the big deal if they do cross? How does it affect you directly? Well, not talking big picture and not going into the whole "they shouldn't mess with nature because they don't know what they're doing" rant (yes, I've been known to rant on that); the biggest deal for the average gardener is 1) if they cross, you're not going to get the plant you're expecting next year when you plant your saved seeds, and/or you may not get enough edible harvest to meet your needs.

That pretty much sucks if you're relying on that garden as your primary food source. And if you try to plant seeds from next year's hybrid (a completely untested F1 GM hybrid, I might add) you have absolutely no idea if you'll even get a viable crop at all. You'd have to pray that you have enough viable seeds from the original left to try and plant again... and protect it so it can't cross with any GMs in the area again. Assuming, of course, that you didn't get sick or starve in the meantime.

But I think the one that strikes closer to home for most folks is 2) whoever holds the copyright/patent on that GM seed can and will sue you for infringement and licensing violations if they discover their marker genes in your garden (they stick little "tags" in the genetic code so they know it's their engineered seed not something natural).

It doesn't seem to matter in most courts that you didn't knowingly or willingly plant their seeds or cross-pollinate with their seeds, and that it is their fault or that farmer's fault... your garden has their marker, so you're guilty and you have to pay. You are guilty until/unless proven innocent... which is backwards of our how legal system is supposed to work (innocent until proven guilty). Search for "Monsanto sue patent infringement" for more info.

Anonymous said...

Very informative read. Personally I look for heirloom as well. Something about large corporations taking over just about everything and running the show bothers me.

You Said: "But I think the one that strikes closer to home for most folks is 2) whoever holds the copyright/patent on that GM seed can and will sue you for infringement and licensing violations if they discover their marker genes in your garden (they stick little "tags" in the genetic code so they know it's their engineered seed not something natural).

It doesn't seem to matter in most courts that you didn't knowingly or willingly plant their seeds or cross-pollinate with their seeds, and that it is their fault or that farmer's fault... your garden has their marker, so you're guilty and you have to pay. You are guilty until/unless proven innocent... which is backwards of our how legal system is supposed to work (innocent until proven guilty). Search for "Monsanto sue patent infringement" for more info."

I saw a documentary a good while back that spoke to this very thing. We probably watched the same thing? It was on Netflix I believe. Sorry forgot the name.

Plickety Cat said...

I've watched a lot of the Food documentaries on Netflix, can't remember which one had the most info on GM; but they were all good and I recommend them all (whether you believe them or not!):

The Future of Food

Food Matters

Food, Inc.

Media That Matters: Good Food

Bad Seed: The Truth About Our Food

King Corn

Fed Up!

And I'm anxiously awaiting the availability of Food Fight

Anonymous said...

Funny you mention this ... I just got done watching the 3rd movie of your 8 listed.

Ya it is scarry whats up with our foods today... Thanks for the post...


Anonymous said...

I think it was "Food, Inc."

I also saw "The Future of Food"

You know, it's so hard to figure out who's telling the truth because of agendas these days. I definitely have a healthy distrust for corporations and government from years of watching the news and so on.

I'm way more apt to believe documentaries like these than corporate speak.

I have wondered though. Are the makers of these Doc's noble in their endeavors? I guess in the end, you do your own research and believe who you want to believe.

The smart bet is safety and caution first, at least for me.

Plickety Cat said...

I agree, it is difficult to get to the bottom of things and know what's "true".

Everyone has an agenda. Everyone. It's whether that agenda is for the good of the many or only the good of the few, and whether they're using persuasion (cooperation) or coercion (intimidation) to achieve that agenda that really makes the difference. There is no such thing as pure altruism; but at least some agendas aren't attempting to subjugate your free will by force at detriment to yourself.

Unfortunately, we're faced with so many "low-level" coercions from government, corporations and social groups, that it's hard at times to recognize when someone is manipulating you against your own best interests. And so much of the data that we need to make informed decisions is either hidden or spin-doctored. There are parties guilty of this on *both* sides of the argument. (although I, like you, find the anti-establishment folks just a tiny bit more credible)

The best we can do is take everything with a grain of salt, investigate on our own, look at what they're *not* saying as well as what they are saying, and form our own opinions. Then, if we're in the mood, attempt to share what we've learned with others... persuasively, I hope :)

Exercise your rights, especially the 1st Amendment, or we'll eventually lose them!

Matt DiLeo said...

hmm, I was impressed by the accuracy of your plant genetics discussion until you got to talking about GM varieties. How would a "sterility" gene be selected for in the wild and propagated throughout a wild population?

Genetic engineering is really not scary at all when you understand it and making one targeted change to a genome produces a ton fewer unintended side effects than occurs during normal meiosis or mutation breeding.

Plickety Cat said...

I'm a big believer in the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is one of the reasons that I don't agree with humans genetically engineering stuff. We may think we know enough not to make any blunders. And we may think we're careful enough not to make any blunders. But we don't and we aren't.

If we humans aren't careful enough to run our food producing establishments well enough not to keep contaminating our foods and spreading illness, do we really think it's wise to take the same business mindset and practices into the gene structure?

Do we really want to trust businesses to do the right thing every step of the way no matter how much it might cost or how low it might take every time... or do we expect them to do the cheapest and fastest thing, even if it means cutting a few corners to keep their costs lower?

I simply don't trust GMO in the business model or in the environment. I understand it, so I'm not afraid of the technology in and of itself... I don't trust that it will be prudently applied. I also don't think it's actually necessary for us to do it... it's arrogant to think we can do better than nature and that we have the right to "fix" things to our liking instead of first determining if the reason we're failing is because we're going against the natural order of things.