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There’s a lot of talk in gardening circles these days about the value of using heirlooms and saving their seed. Hybrids have fallen out of favor with many gardeners who favor older, often tastier, varieties.
But do hybrids belong in the same category as GMOs? Do hybrids pose a safety risk, and just what are the differences between the two? Read on for everything you need to know about hybrids and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
What Are Hybrids?
The process of hybridization occurs continually in nature as open-pollinated plants pollinate each other. Over years and years, plants may change slightly, developing better disease resistance or larger fruits.
Humans have been harnessing this power since the beginning of organized agriculture – taking seed from the healthiest, most productive plants and pollinating those plants to create better offspring. For most of history, this process relied on hybridizing open-pollinated plants. But creating a hybrid with superior characteristics took a long time – as many as ten generations.
In the mid-1800s, researchers discovered how to create a hybrid in just one generation. Using a controlled environment, floating row covers, and hand pollination, they could predictably create a new plant cultivar. These hybrids are known as F1 hybrids.
Hybrids aren’t dangerous, and they often have many benefits. Hybrids are usually more disease-resistant than heirloom varieties, and they may produce more vigorous plants. On the other hand, through the process of hybridization, unique characteristics, such as sweetness and flavor, are sometimes bred out. For example, most commercial tomato growers use hybrids, which are bred for disease resistance and firm fruit that ships well. Ditto for strawberries. The fruit might survive long trips to supermarkets, but it lacks the intense flavor of the heirloom crops.
Seed companies love hybrids because they can be registered. Only the company that developed the F1 hybrid can produce and sell it. Seeds collected from a hybrid plant won’t grow true, so gardeners must buy new seeds each year. Many gardening experts worry that this seed monopoly gives too much power to seed companies. It also limits the diversity of crops, a potentially devastating situation if serious plant diseases occur. Finally, there’s something satisfying about biting into a tomato variety that your grandmother grew. Growing heirlooms gives us a link to our agricultural past.
In short, hybrids have both positive and negative traits. If you regularly use hybrids in your garden, try using heirloom seeds occasionally, as well. Heirlooms are almost always more interesting to grow and often taste better, as well. Best of all, you can collect and save seed at the end of the growing season to increase your self-sufficiency.
What Are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are another animal together. While hybrids simply harness a naturally occurring process, GMOs are created in a lab using techniques, such as gene splicing, that are foreign to the natural world. Genes from completely separate kingdoms are combined – something that almost never happens in nature. A genetically modified corn manufactured by Monsanto, for example, is loaded with genetic material from Bacillus thuringensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacteria that can kill corn borers and other insects.
Currently in the U.S., GMOs are found in almost all corn, soybean, and cotton crops. They are also found in rapeseed (which is used to make canola oil), sugar beets, potatoes, peppers, peas, squash, and rice. Monsanto has plans to advance further into the fruit and vegetable market. Cows are fed GMO feed, and honeybees make honey from the pollen of GMO crops. The FDA does not require products containing GMOs to be labeled as such. In fact, unless you eat an entirely organic diet, you probably consume GMOs every day, especially if you eat a highly processed diet.
Proponents for GMOs say these products significantly increase farmers’ yields, allowing them to produce food more profitably and potentially reduce hunger worldwide. Whether these claims are true is open to debate, but many researchers are worried about the potential for harm. Below are a few of the potential risks of GMOs.
Never before has man had the ability to manipulate nature as scientists are now, and we simply don’t know how GMOs will behave in the human body or even in the environment long term. There is growing evidence that GMOs can cause harm, though. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine believes GMOs have the potential to cause immune dysfunction, allergies, infertility, inflammation, and a host of other health problems.
The Autism Relief Foundation believes GMOs may be contributing to the increase in autism spectrum disorders, as well as cause further damage to children identified with such disorders.
Currently, GMOs serve two purposes. First, pesticides are genetically spliced into seed to combat insect pests. Unfortunately, these pesticides kill beneficial insects such as ladybugs, butterflies, and lacewings along with the bad guys. In April, 2013, the European Union banned the use of certain pesticides and pesticide-laced seeds believed to be impacting honeybee populations. Another potential problem is that of pesticide resistance. As insects consume GMOs, they can build resistance to the pesticides. Over time, “super bugs” can evolve, which are even more difficult to control.
Farmers report that livestock fed a GMO diet suffer more health problems and infertility. Offspring have higher mortality rates and more health problems, as well.
The second way seed manufacturers manipulate GMO seeds is by building plants that can tolerate high doses of glysophate herbicides (Roundup) without being killed. What this means is that the food you consume may contain higher amounts of herbicides than ever before. Glysophate has been found to cause birth defects in amphibians and birds and cancer, infertility, and endocrine dysfunction in many animals. Several studies have shown that glysophate causes soil damage and can even cause plant diseases, making farmers even more dependent on chemical use.
A handful of companies control most of the world’s seed banks, a potentially devastating situation. For example, the cost of soybean seed has quadrupled since Monsanto gained licensing rights, according to the New York Times.
Monsanto has sued many farmers over the years for patent violations and won, even when the farmers unknowingly gained access to the patented genetic material through wind pollination. As the agri-giants gain more control, farmers and consumers alike pay a heavy toll.
So what’s an individual to do? First, become as self-sufficient as you can. Choose organic, heirloom seeds and save your own seed whenever possible. Buy products labeled non-GMO. Write to your state representatives expressing your desire for more government oversight of GMOs.