Translating the Language of Seed Packets: Hybrid, Heirloom, non-GMO, and more

Hybrid, heirloom, organic, non-GMO, natural….there’s lots of labels on those seed packets or plants you pick up at the garden center or from your favorite catalog.  Since the seed-starting season is upon us, let’s take a minute to look at some of the information – and mis-information – you might find on those seed packets.

For a brief overview, here’s a short video segment I recently shot for the Backyard Farmer Show, a popular public TV offering for Nebraska Extension:

Hybrid vs. Heirloom vs. Open Pollinated

Just what is a hybrid anyway?

Source: http://www.biology.arizona.edu

Simply put, a hybrid is a plant (or any living organism, technically) with two different parents. Take for example the Celebrity variety of tomato, which is very popular among home gardeners. In order to get seeds of Celebrity tomatoes, whoever produces the seeds must always cross two specific parent plants to get those specific seeds, called an F1 hybrid.

These parents have been developed through traditional breeding programs (read: the birds and the bees — no genetic engineering here) from many different crosses. Hybridization has occurred naturally ever since there were plants. Man has been directing this process throughout most of his agricultural history to get better crop plants. How else would we have many of the vegetables and fruits that we take for granted today?

Crops like corn have very little resemblance to its wild counterpart, many thanks to selection and even crossing of superior plants by humans over the centuries. University researchers and seed developers use this natural ability of plants to cross to direct the formation of new varieties that improve our ability to produce food.

What is an heirloom?

Perhaps the first question we should ask is, what is an open-pollinated seed? An open-pollinated variety is one whose genetics are stable enough that there is no need for specific parent plants, because the seeds produced from either self-pollination (as in the case of beans and tomatoes) or cross-pollination with the same variety will produce the same variety.

An “heirloom” plant is basically an open-pollinated plant that has a history, either through age (50-plus years) or through heritage (it has a family story).

Take for example the Mortgage Lifter tomato.

Mortgage Lifter Tomato Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/blewsdawg

It was developed by a gentleman living in West Virginia (my native state -there are two competing stories as to who developed it). For all intents and purposes, the Mortgage Lifter started out as a hybrid, since the gardener in question developed the tomato by crossing many different varieties to find one that he liked.  He sold so many of them to his neighbors that he was able to pay off the mortgage…thus its interesting moniker.

It just so happened that the genetics of this tomato were stable enough that its offspring had the same characteristics, so seeds could be saved.  Therefore, it was technically an Open-Pollinated variety. Over time, the tomato became considered an heirloom because of both its age and unique story. This story has played out many times, in many gardens and in many research plots at universities.

There are some trying to revive the practice of plant breeding for the home gardener. If you’re interested, check out the book “Plant Breeding for the Home Gardener” by Garden Professor emeritus Joseph Tychonievich. Who knows? Maybe in 50 years we will be celebrating your plant as a distinctive heirloom.

So which is better – Heirlooms or Hybrids?

There are pros and cons to hybrid plants and heirlooms both, so there really isn’t an answer as to which one you should plant. It really boils down to personal choice. Hybrid plants tend to have more resistance to diseases and pests, due to the fact that breeders are actively trying to boost resistance. This means that there will be higher-quality produce fewer inputs. This is why hybrids are popular with farmers — nicer, cleaner-looking fruits with fewer pesticides. Many times hybrids are also on the more productive side, thanks to a phenomenon called hybrid vigor.

Heirlooms, on the other hand, help preserve our genetic diversity and even tell our cultural story. Heirlooms do not require a breeding program, so there is built-in resilience, knowing that we can produce these seeds well into the future with little intervention. But we do have a trade-off with typically less disease-resistance and less consistency on things like yield.  Since they are open-pollinated, they are often a good choice for people who enjoy or rely on saving seeds from year to year.

GMO-Free or Non-GMO

As we have pointed out several times before, when it comes to seeds for home gardeners, the label of GMO-Free is largely meaningless and sometimes mis-leading.  Whether or not you believe the prevailing science that shows that genetically engineered plants are safe for human consumption, you can rest assured that there are currently no genetically engineered seeds or plants available to home gardeners.  Not on the seed rack at the box store nor your local garden center.  Not in a catalog or online.

Here are two assurances to that statement:  A majority of the things that you grow in the home garden don’t have a genetically engineered counterpart. Only

Source: USDA Animal and Health Inspection Service

12 genetically engineered crops have been approved in the US, and only 10 of those are currently produced.  Most of these are commodity crops that home gardeners would not even produce, such as cotton, sugar beet, canola, and alfalfa.  A few more have counterparts that are grown by home gardeners, but are vastly different from those grown by commodity producers (soybeans vs. edamame soy).  And some just aren’t that very widespread (there are some GE sweet corn cultivars and squash cultivars, but they aren’t widespread on the market).

So for the most part, there aren’t any “GMO” counterparts to the crops you’d grow in the home garden.  They don’t exist.

The other assurance is that genetically engineered crops are not marketed or sold to home gardeners as a matter of business practice or law.  In order to purchase genetically engineered seeds or plants, it is current practice in the United States that you must sign an agreement with the company that holds the patent stating that you will not misuse the crop or propagate it (and before we get into the whole intellectual property argument – plant patents and agreements like this have been around since the early 1900s – it isn’t new).  So you know that you aren’t buying genetically engineered seeds since you aren’t being asked to sign an agreement.  Plus, these companies make their money by selling large quantities of seeds, they just aren’t interested in selling you a packet of lettuce seeds for $2.

So since there aren’t any GMOs available to home gardeners, why do all these seed companies slap that label on their packets?  Marketing, my dear!  It started off with just a few companies, mainly using the label to compete in a crowded market.  And fear sells.  The label has spread to more and more companies as this fear and anti-science based marketing ploy has spread…both by companies who jumped on the fear bandwagon and by those who took so much harassment from the followers of the non-GMO crowd or they lost sales to people sold on the non-GMO label that they finally gave in.  Unfortunately for some companies, slapping the non-GMO label on a product seems to give them permission to charge more, even if has no real meaning….so buyer beware.

Treated vs Non-Treated

Image result for treated seed
Treated seed Source: pesticidestewardship.org

Seed treatment usually involves the application of one or more pesticide such as a fungicide or insecticide to protect against pathogens or pests, mainly in the early stages of growth.  A good example would be if you’ve ever seen corn, pea, or bean seeds at the local feed or farm store that are bright pink or orange in color.  These seeds have been treated with a fungicide to offer short-term protection against damping off.  Some crops are also treated with systemic insecticides, such as imidacloprid, to protect against insect damage. There’s been a big emergence of organic seed treatments, so treatment doesn’t necessarily mean the crop can’t be labeled organic.

Treated crops are most-commonly found at farm supply stores and aren’t generally marketed directly to home gardeners. You’ll likely not find them at most box stores or garden centers catering exclusively to gardeners. Many packets will specify whether they are non-treated or treated.

Organic and Natural

In seeds, the term Organic largely refers to seeds harvested from plants that were certified organic.  Generally speaking, these seeds were produced on plants that received no synthetically produced fertilizers or pesticide sprays.  However, it does not mean that the plants were not treated with pesticides.  There’s a great misunderstanding about organic production – there are a number of pesticides and even seed treatments approved for use on organic crops.  Typically, they are produced from a plant or microorganism extract, naturally occurring mineral, or other organic derivative.  So organic does not equal pesticide free (on the seed rack or on the grocery shelf).

There are a few different levels of “organic,” too.

Sometimes small producers use the label in a general sense to mean that they follow organic practices, but aren’t certified.  The process for certification is often onerous and costly for small producers, so they often opt to not get it.  This is especially true for producers that market exclusively to a local clientele, like at the farmers market, where they can rely on their relationship with customers and reputation to speak for their practices. Some food companies may also use a simple “organic” label – either as a design choice, or because their product wouldn’t qualify for a certification.

"Certified Organic" Label“Certified organic” means that the producers practices have been certified to meet the requirements laid down by a certifying agency.  A certifying agency could be a non-profit or a state department of agriculture.  The requirements and practices vary from entity to entity.

Image result for certified organicUSDA Certified Organic” means that the producer has been certified by the USDA as a follower of the guidelines set forth by the National Organic Program (NOP).  This is usually seen as the most stringent of the certifications, and is standardized nation-wide.

 

For certified organic producers, a requirement for production is that all seeds or plant sources are organic.  For home gardeners, I often question the need for organic seed, even if organic methods are followed.  A quick literature search turned up no evidence that garden seeds contain pesticide residues.  There’s been no evidence that plants translocate systemic pesticides to their seeds or fruits(Though it is impossible to prove a negative).  Since seeds are located inside some sort of fruit, there would be little chance of residue on the seed from a pesticide application.  And even if there was some sort of residue, it would be such a small amount in the seed that it would be so dilute in the mature plant that it would likely be well below any threshold of threat to human or wildlife health…or even measurability.

Personally, I may opt for the organic seed at home if it were the same price of the “conventional” on offer…but that organic label often includes a pretty good price differential.  Knowing that there likely isn’t a huge difference in what is in the packages….my penny-pinching self will reach for the conventional, cheaper option.

And what about “natural.”  That one’s easy….there is no recognized definition of natural by the USDA or any other body.  Companies use that term to mean whatever they want it to mean….meaning that it is relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

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NON-GMO FERTILIZER?

http://passel.unl.edu/pages/informationmodule.php?idinformationmodule=1057077340&topicorder=3&maxto=14
Image courtesy of Plant & Soil Sciences eLibraryPRO at UNL

I was asked by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott to look up some information in order to answer a recent comment and question on a previous post.

Paraphrased, the question is, “… are there any verifiable “organic” fertilizers that can be guaranteed to be made from 100 percent non-GMO sources.”

First off, let me state up front that the whole “Non-GMO” labeling effort is pure marketing. There is no evidence to suggest products that come from genetically engineered crops are any different than crops made from other plant breeding methods. The body of evidence in fact suggests they are as safe as their conventional counterparts, and have some excellent benefits to farmers and consumers from an economic and environmental standpoint.

Having gotten that disclosure out of the way, and assuming that price is not a factor, it turned out to be an interesting question to answer.

“USDA Certified Organic” fertilizers would be problematic, since there are exceptions to the organic standards, which allow manures fed GE crops to be used.

Similarly, oilseed meals like cottonseed, soybean meal, etc. also can be certified organic, even though they come from genetically engineered crops.

ALFALFA MEAL

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lucerna_-_Budaörs.jpg
Alfalfa Field image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One possible alternative in that category is alfalfa meal, since genetically engineered alfalfa is currently grown on only 13.5% of alfalfa acreage, whereas in the case of cottonseed, soybean, sugar beet, and corn products, the rate of adoption of genetically engineered crops is well over 90% of U.S. acreage.

Only about 13.5 percent of harvested U.S. alfalfa acreage is genetically modified, compared to more than 90 percent of corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and sugar beets acres, according to a new USDA report that cites 2013 farmer surveys.

It appears likely the percentage of genetically engineered alfalfa will continue rising, though: Roughly one-third of newly seeded acreage planted that year was of a biotech variety resistant to glyphosate herbicides, USDA said.

Farmers have been slower to adopt genetically engineered alfalfa partly because it’s a perennial crop that stays in the ground for roughly five years, said Dan Putnam, an alfalfa extension specialist at the University of California-Davis.

It would be incumbent upon the buyer to ask, however, if the alfalfa meal came from a grower who does not use genetically engineered alfalfa, and whether or not the supplier of the alfalfa meal guarantees that.

MANURES FROM LIVESTOCK FED ONLY ORGANIC FORAGE

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hestemøj.jpg
Manure, a field in Randers in Denmark. Image courtesy of Malene Thyssen at Wikimedia Commons

“Demeter USA” … the private certifying entity that guarantees “Biodyamic” preparations does require that any manures come from livestock fed only “USDA Certified Organic” feed. So manures that carry that seal should satisfy the question.

As an aside, here is Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott’s literature review of “Biodynamics” and why that certification has little science to recommend it.

Further, finding the product would be difficult, since it is primarily produced on-site at certified Biodyamic farms, and used there.

SEAWEED FERTILIZERS

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KelpforestI2500ppx.JPG
An underwater shot of a kelp forest. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Next products that might qualify are seaweed, or kelp products. There are no genetically engineered seaweed/kelp products I’m aware of. However, there are real concerns about the sustainability of harvesting seaweed and kelp from the wild.

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott wrote about them here:

The ecological impacts of increased seaweed harvesting are currently under investigation and the possibility of significant ecosystem damage is real.

There is however, some interesting research and startup companies that are farming seaweed and kelp for a variety of potential uses.

I can’t however, find any products available for the home gardener that are sourced from this effort. Still early.

So, when it comes to seaweed/kelp products, you’ll have to (again) ask a reputable supplier to answer the “sustainable” question.

BAT GUANO

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat_Cave_mine
Bat Cave Mine Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In a similar vein, “Bat guano” products would also qualify as “non-genetically engineered”, but the sustainability question also comes into play. How is it harvested? 

I can’t deny that it’s a great fertilizer, but if you want to use an organic fertilizer why not at least consider one that is renewable instead of one that is from a limited resource and which may cause harm to a unique ecological system?

SEAFOOD BY-PRODUCTS

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSM_V45_D079_Non_edible_fish_scrap_processing.jpg
Non edible fish scrap processing … Public Domain image from 1894

Fertilizers made from by-products of the seafood and fish industries, assuming they don’t come from aquaculture farms, since the livestock feed for those operations could be sourced from genetically engineered crops, do have a history.

Two links (there may be others, but these seem sufficient for now), a comprehensive review of products (including fertilizers) from the Alaska seafood industry, put together by Oregon State University

Fish Fertilizer Product Descriptions

Fertilizers are characterized by their Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium content (N-P-K). Therefore all fish material will have some fertilizer value since fish contain protein which is Nitrogen,
the bone contains Phosphorous and the flesh and bone contain Potassium. Generally, fish products are re-allocated to fertilizer use for any number of reasons including quality too poor for feeding, volume too small to convert to fishmeal and oil, and an available agricultural market in the vicinity of the waste material.

And a similar document put together by Michigan State University about the use of fish by-products for other uses.

In an effort to help the Michigan fish processing industry find better solutions to handle fish processing waste materials, a project was initiated to determine the viability of composting fish waste.

CHILEAN NITRATE

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dusičnan_sodný.JPG
Mined Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3) Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

There is a mineral product called Chilean Nitrate or Nitrate of Soda that is mined from a desert in northern Chile that is allowable for use under the standards for organic production in the U.S. However, it is not allowed for use under Canadian, or international organic standards, and a change to prevent its use under U.S. standards is still pending. Up until 2012, this was the wording for its use.

Sodium nitrate, also known as chilean nitrate, cannot account for more than 20 percent of the N requirements of organic crops in the United States.

Its use is also prohibited by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and most other standards for organic production outside the United States.

After 2012, the 20% restriction was dropped in the U.S.

The expiration of the current notation will effectively mean that sodium nitrate may be used in organic crop production without a specific restriction on the amount used: however, producers must continue to comply with all requirements of the soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard.

Although the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended that sodium nitrate become a completely prohibited nonsynthetic substance, the NOP has not issued rule-making to carry out this recommendation as of yet.

FEATHER MEAL

A by-product of the poultry industry.  Is it from poultry fed only non-GMO feed?

LOCALLY PRODUCED

The final piece of the puzzle can be found (only partly in jest) in Dr. Jeff Gillman’s post about a cheap, locally available source of Nitrogen.

You’d be saving yourself the cost of fertilizer, saving the environmental cost of shipping the fertilizer you might otherwise purchase, saving water, and you’d have something unique to tell your gardening friends about.  Win – win situation as far as I’m concerned.

In summary, I don’t buy into any of the fear-based marketing of products that come from genetic engineering. There may be (at this time) sources of alfalfa meal that do not come from genetically engineered sources.

Biodynamic manures certified by Demeter USA require that the animals be fed only “USDA Certified Organic” feed, but will be difficult to come by. Seaweed/Kelp and Bat guano products would qualify, but have major sustainability questions about them. Lots of potential with seafood/fish by products, and finally … a personal possible solution.

Many thanks to Emanuel Farrow, a consultant to both conventional and organic farmers, who helped point me in the right direction and provided important fact checking expertise for this post.

Our New Year’s Resolution – to keep you informed and entertained every week.

Happy New Year!

The Garden Professor’s collective resolution is to have at least one new blog post a week for 2018. So I’m kicking things off with a little fact checking on the claims made for a product that’s “a complete ecosystem in a bottle.” The company touts its strong connection to science (“our products revolve around biology”). There is a long list of ingredients and claims – way too much for one post. We’ll start with the first four this week.

All this can be yours if the price is right!

Ingredient claim #1: “Chitin/chitin degrading Bacillus: Chitin is a natural polymer that is found in crustaceans, such as crabs, lobsters, shrimp and oysters as well as other organisms, such as insects, worms and fungi. When added to the soil ecosystem, chitin (also referred to as chitosan) promotes the growth of chitin-degrading bacteria. These bacteria, in turn, create a hostile environment for pathogenic fungi and parasitic nematodes. Chitin also acts directly on plants to promote tissue repair and disease resistance.”

Fact check #1: A couple of technical points: oysters don’t have chitin. And they’re not crustaceans. They are MOLLUSKS. They have shells with CALCIUM. And chitosan is not the same thing as chitin. It’s an industrially produced material that comes from chitin.

Not a crustacean.

Chitin is indeed found in arthropods, which include crustaceans and insects. Now, most of us don’t have crabs, lobsters and shrimp roaming our landscape, but we do have insects. Lots of them. They produce a lot of chitin when they molt and when they die. Do you really think we need to add more chitin for Bacillus to consumer? I sure haven’t seen any science supporting that practice.

What about the Bacillus species that degrade chitin? Well, if you’ve got insects in your landscape, you can bet you’ve got microbes that break down chitin as well. Otherwise you’d be up to your garden boots in chitin carcasses. So why do we need to add more bacteria?

Imagine billions of these in your garden…

Finally, there’s no evidence that chitin applied to plants in the landscape has any effect whatsoever. You might get responses in the lab, and chitosan (not chitin) might have some direct application. But like many other elicitors, you have to get it inside the plant to have a cellular effect. And plants are particularly adept at keeping things like decomposing bug bits outside of their tissues.

Ingredient claim #2: “Compost tea: The disease suppressive characteristics of compost have long been known and therefore the liquid extracts from compost, known as compost teas are being use to battle plant disease while stimulating plant growth. Beneficial organisms including bacteria (primarily from the genera Bacillus, Pseudomonas, and Penicillium) along with some yeast and fungi form a physical barrier against disease causing agents and provide a competitive environment in which the pathogenic species lose out. In addition, compost teas stimulate plant growth, translating into a healthier plant, which is more resistant to attack from disease. Compost teas have shown effectiveness in the control of late blight, grey mold, downy and powdery mildew, fusarium wilt, and apple scab among many others.”

The visuals are more interesting than the product.

Fact check #2. Just because compost has disease suppressing characteristics doesn’t mean that water leaching through it will have the same. We’ve been hearing for years that compost tea suppresses disease. Where’s the definitive research? It’s a topic I’ve been following for nearly two decades and there’s still nothing that’s consistently effective. (Another technical point here: it’s illegal to make pesticidal claims of a product that’s not registered for that use. Company lawyers may want to review that.)

There are many species of bacteria, including the ones mentioned, that form protective and beneficial biofilms on plant tissues such as fine roots. You can find these bacteria in compost and other sources of organic material – that’s their food source. You won’t find many of them in compost tea.

I’d love to see evidence of anything stimulating plant growth other than plant growth regulators (or hormones as they’re sometimes called).

Aren’t marketers getting tired of compost teas yet? I’m getting tired of hearing about them. I reviewed the science about them 10 years ago and haven’t seen anything to warrant an update.

Ingredient claim #3: “Essential oils: or essences they are called, are highly concentrated substances extracted from various parts of aromatic plants and trees. Essential oils are combined with other carrier oils and teas for stabilization. Essential oils are used against plant pests and disease by interfering with their reproduction and feeding habits while protecting beneficial predatory organisms.”

We like them, ergo they work.

Fact check #3: Essential oils have no documented benefit when applied outdoors. They can be effective in closed spaces, like homes and greenhouses, but they dissipate quickly outside. What I really want to see, however, is the mechanism by which oils can identify – and actually protect! – beneficial insects while killing pests. (Hey, lawyers…we’ve got another pesticidal claim here…)

Ingredient claim #4: “Streptomyces griseoviridis: Is a naturally occurring soil bacteria. The microbe deprives pathogenic fungi of living space and nourishment by colonizing roots in advance of fungi. In addition the microbe secretes various enzymes and metabolites which inhibit pathogenic growth. Streptomyces griseoviridis has been shown to promote the growth and yield of all plants. Streptomyces griseoviridis is used for the prevention of root and stem rot, Pythium, Rhizoctonia, Helminthosporium, Sclerotinia, among others.”

All those stickers keep the bad guys from colonizing.

Fact check #4: While this is a naturally occurring soil bacterium, it’s not clear where it naturally occurs. EPA information states it was first isolated in Finland from peat bogs. Is this something we should be introducing to our own soils? Its effectiveness in disease control and plant performance is sporadic and confined primarily to greenhouse application on crop plants. The diseases listed are common in greenhouses, but not necessarily in gardens and landscapes (presumably because there are natural controls outdoors in healthy soils). There is certainly nothing to support its use in gardens and landscapes, especially considering that many native, beneficial bacterial species can colonize plant roots and act as a protective biofilm.

Stay tuned for next time!