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A Seed Primer

I wrote this for the WE Cooperative CSA newsletter this week and thought I'd share it here, too. All of these terms are ones I hear, but I was never sure of their exact meaning and implication for my food. Here's what I found...

We read and hear a lot of different terms in regards to our fruits and vegetables - heirloom, organic, hybrid, and GMO (genetically-modified organism). I thought I'd give you a brief run-down so you can begin to decipher what it all means...and why you should search out some and avoid others. Let’s take a look at a few definitions so we can better understand what an heirloom seed is compared to a hybrid or genetically modified seed.

'Heirloom' - like your great-grandmother's brooch or your great-uncle's cello -  generally refers to something passed down from generation to another. Heirloom seeds are from a plant that has been passed from one generation to another, cultivated and preserved because of its value. The value could be flavor, productivity, adaptability, or a combination of desirable characteristics. Many heirlooms have a legacy reaching back three centuries or more. These seeds are almost always the most prolific, most flavorful, and most dependable varieties.

'Open-pollinated' is a term sometimes used interchangeably with heirloom; however, they are not synonymous but they are related. An open-pollinated seed is simply a seed that can be harvested from the plant, saved, replanted, and the same variety will grow year after year. Open-pollination is how heirloom seeds are produced. But not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom, as there are open-pollinated varieties that are not old enough to be considered heirlooms.

'Organic' denotes a crop grown to a strict and regulated set of standards, including not being treated with pesticides. The certification process includes inspections of the fields and processing facilities, detailed record keeping and periodic testing of soil and water to ensure that growers and handlers are meeting the required standards laid-out by the USDA.

A hybrid seed is produced by artificially cross-pollinating two genetically distinct plants of the same species, such as two different apples or two varieties of tomatoes. The cross-pollination is done manually and the farmer or gardener has to purchase new seed every year. Hybrids are typically bred for higher yield, greater uniformity, improved color and disease resistance. Flavor, historically, has not been a characteristic when selecting characteristics for new hybrids.

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seeds have been altered using DNA from completely different species and organisms to produce traits such as resistance to herbicides. Some GMO corn, for example, creates its own herbicide in its roots. The major crops that are currently genetically-modified are corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat.

Why Choose Heirloom
Many people come to heirlooms for nostalgic reasons. They are searching for flavors that they remember from their childhoods. Flavor has been one of the major reasons for the preservation of specific varieties. It’s the classic conundrum: quantity vs. quality. Thank goodness quality is making a comeback.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. It is always good to get a refresher!


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