The Difference Between GMO's, Hybrids & Heirlooms

Posted by Green Acres Nursery & Supply on May 15, 2013 11:18:00 AM

We’ve been getting a lot of questions from our customers lately about genetically engineered plants. To clarify, a genetically modified organism, or GMO is not the same as a hybrid. Here is a brief overview of what these terms mean and why these methods are used.


genetically modified

What is a Genetically Modified Organism?

Genetic engineering is a process that allows scientists to move genetic material from DNA between organisms to change their characteristics. The genes transferred to another organism are selected to enhance or repress a certain characteristic. The genes of one organism are physically incorporated into another organism, changing its genetic makeup. These traits are now a part of the organisms DNA, and passed on to it’s offspring.


What is a Hybrid?

A hybrid is a variety of plant which has been strategically bred to encourage desirable characteristics possessed by the parents. It begins with people observing certain characteristics that a variety of plant has developed, such as resistance to a certain disease. These characteristics are often natural mutations that plants adapt to give them an advantage in their environment. The plant is then bred, and produces seeds for a plant which hopefully inherited that desirable characteristic from its parents. It is a process of trial and error that eventually results in a plant with improved resistance to a particular disease. These characteristics are not passed on to it’s offspring.  Hybridization is done by the grower through the transfer of pollen however has nothing to do with altering the DNA of the plant.

See the diagram below for an esoteric explanation of the steps involved to hybridize peas.

Hybridization resized 600

Why modify plants?

People have been breeding plants for desirable characteristics for years. It is done for increased yield, pest resistance, improved aesthetic qualities or even nutritional benefits. The limitation in traditional hybridizing is that the species which are bred must be closely related to one another. Genetically modifying an organism is different in that it allows scientists to take the genes that produce desirable qualities in plants and transfer them to any organism, not just those which are closely related.

What is an Heirloom?

Using tomatoes as a prime example, an heirloom tomato variety must be at least 50 years old.  Heirloom tomatoes are often valued for their taste, unusual markings, color, and shape.  They can be planted from saved seed and result in the same plant as the parent plant.


How are Hybrids and Heirlooms different?

According to the UC Cooperative Extension program, "hybrid tomatoes are cross bred from two or more different plants and are created for a particular purpose (disease resistance, color, shape, etc.)" as mentioned above.  "Their seeds will revert back to one of the parents, so they are not reliable to grow from saved seed.  Heirlooms on the other hand are open pollinated and the seeds have been handed down through generations of growers, and they can be grown from saved seed to replicate the original plant.  


Green Acres does not carry any genetically modifided plants in our seeds or starters.  

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Topics: Veggies and Herbs, Tomatoes, GMO's

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