Confusing Produce Labels
Updated: Feb 4, 2018
It's February, which means that it's time to get busy with our garden! What? With minus degree temperatures and snow on the ground? Yes! Because the first step in our massive garden each year is to make sure we have the seed we need. We try to get our seed ordered by February 1st each year. Once again, I should have taken a picture of my kitchen table so you could see the ridiculous amount of seed catalogs, last year's seeds, paper, and spreadsheets (aka another mess) laid out for our evening of garden planning. However, I forgot. Again. (I know, I'll work on getting better at taking pictures!)
Anyway, when you look through seed catalogs, it can be so confusing to know what to order. Heirloom, organic, hybrid, GMO, open-pollinated...WHAT???? The news is filled with stories about GMO vs. organic produce (good, bad, ugly). But, do you really know what you are buying/planting? And, even more so, do you know why? So, if you are a newbie gardener (or for that matter, anyone who purchases produce from a store or a farmer's market) I'm going to (hopefully) clear up the confusion!
Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been planted for MANY (about 100) years and yields consistent, proven varieties. If you plant heirloom buttercup squash one year and plant the seed from that year's harvest the next year, you will grow more heirloom buttercup squash in the same variety.
Hybrid seeds are a cross of two varieties to create a new variety. Let's use an animal analogy to explain. If you breed a quarter horse and a quarter horse you get a quarter horse (heirloom). If you breed a quarter horse and a draft horse you get a mixed horse (hybrid), but it is still a horse (this will be important later). If you grow hybrid buttercup squash one year you can plant the seed from that crop the next year, and you might get the same variety of buttercup squash, or you might get one of the varieties used to create that variety, or you might get a whole new variety, or you might get nothing. Back to animal analogies...if you breed a horse and a donkey you get a mule. Mules are great for work and for riding, but they won't reproduce. Horses and donkeys are different species (varieties) however, they are still in the same genus (animal family).
Open-pollinated seeds are seeds that may be heirloom or hybrid. Basically, crops are grown in non-controlled environments where insects fly and pollinate wherever they want, so you don't exactly know what variety the seed is.
Organic means crops are raised with little chemical additives (pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer) and the chemical that is applied is more environmentally friendly (won't hurt bees, animals, or people). Organic may or may not apply to open-pollinated, hybrid, or heirloom seeds.
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. So, GMO seed is when the DNA of a certain variety of plant is spliced with the DNA of a different organism entirely. Usually a different genus. GMO seeds are often modified with a bacteria or fungus that makes them more tolerant to disease and to certain chemicals used in traditional farming (with pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers). If it were possible, this would be like trying to breed a horse to a crocodile. Not possible naturally, and not yet possible in a lab.
(This is the part where I apologize because this post is getting plenty long, but I still have a few points to make!) We do NOT use GMO seed here at our ranch. If you listen to proponents of GMO they say that GMO seed is nutritionally equivalent to regular seed. Plus, it is more tolerant to disease, and yields more. All that is true. The reason we do not use GMO seed is because we believe it is confusing for the body. How does your brain know if it is eating a cucumber or a fungus? I personally think that GMO is one of the causes of the rise in auto-immune conditions (however, that is a health issue, not a ranching one, so I will leave that soap box for another site). If we can find it, we use organic, heirloom seed because we like to save our seed for next year and we try to use as few chemicals as possible; however, I do also use some open-pollinated seed and sometimes even hybrid seed. I also like to purchase my seeds as locally as possible. So, most of my seeds come from a seed farm in my gardening zone. I order a few things online, and our little town has a wonderful locally owned green house in case I need a few plants later on in the season.
Whatever label you choose on your seed or produce, hopefully this post will help you be more educated on the labels you hear about at your local nursery, your grocery store, and on the news. I also hope that this will inspire you to spread out some seed catalogs, a spreadsheet, and plan your own garden this spring!