A seed is often not what it seems……

I’ve had a number of discussions in the last while with people over the difference between organic, heirloom, open pollinated, hybrid and GMO seeds. The belief that most people have is that organic seeds are all heirloom or open pollinated. This is not the case, in fact the opposite is true. So here is a small piece on what the differences are. This is not cast in stone and you guys are more than welcome to wade in with an opinion.

Firstly I’d like to cover the seeds that most people encounter on the supermarket or nursery shelves. Generally all of these seeds used to be open pollinated and there were quite a few heirlooms available on the shelves in South Africa. Sadly this has slowly been reduced as the large seed houses remove the Open Pollinated seed and replace them with Hybrids. The main reason behind this is to ensure that customers keep coming back and buy more seed every year. There is a nice conspiracy theory that goes with this, here are two examples here and here. Just think of what happens when someone says that you cannot plant anything but their vegetable seed on your own property and more importantly, that by law you cannot even save the seed.

So from being able to buy real seed, many consumers have unknowingly been reduced to a limited selection of seeds that are purposefully hybrid varieties. This has been done without your knowledge, as the old varieties just disappear from the stores. It does not mean to say that you can’t save the seed, you can. The only problem is that the seed you save will not breed true to type and you will never be able to grow the variety that you originally bought from this seed, without going back and buying that seed again.

But anyway, who wants to eat or grow something that barely tastes like it should. I’d rather plant something that is heirloom or OP, has real flavour, and an interesting history to share at the dinner table. While at the same time still being able to save the seed from my own harvest, so that I can plant them free of charge the following year, and the next and the next etc.

Here’s a quick terminology breakdown for those that are still learning about Heirlooms and OP Vegetables.

Heirloom Seeds. (Can be Organic and are always and OP variety)

These are seeds that have a history in certain areas and have developed a name for outstanding production, flavour or some other desirable characteristic for the home gardener. Many heirlooms have in fact been commercial leaders in the past and have provided small farmers or market gardeners with a profitable income, without having to buy new seed every year. Typically Heirloom seeds are now pretty rare and are described as OP seeds that were well know in the market before the 1950’s. However it is entirely possible to find heirloom seeds that are of a newer ‘heritage’. Heirloom seeds are typically handed down through a family or with a close knit community and as such have developed a following that is generally regional with a strong identity to that region. There is a thin line between heirloom and OP varieties. ALL heirloom seeds are OP. That is a given, one cannot have an heirloom variety that is a hybrid, however one can have a heirloom that was developed from a hybrid (The Mortgage Lifter Tomato) is one case in point. The breed however has been stabilized and is now considered by all experts as an heirloom variety.

Open Pollinated Seeds. (Can be Organic, the term OP or OPV is often used.)

Open Pollinated Seed or OP for short are any seeds that are genetically stable and will breed true to type from generation to generation. They were and are often commercial varieties. One can have a ‘patent’ or Plant Breeders Rights (PBR) on an open pollinated variety, but that does not stop farmers in South Africa from legally saving the seed from year to year and re-using the seed on their own farm. You just cannot sell the seed to someone else. OP Commercial varieties are going out of fashion as the astute gardener/farmer is able to save seed from the crop every year and replant without the need to go back to the original PBR holder for more seed. And this is where the Hybrid and GMO varieties step in to create a secure income for the seed houses.

Hybrid Seeds (Can be Organic, and will not breed true to type)

Hybrids are a whole discussion on their own and I’ll try and keep it short and sweet. Many Hybrids have been bred to create a plant with desirable characteristics, often disease resistance, higher yield, fruit size, shape, colour or a combination of a number of these factors. Generally the hybrid will have a higher yield than an OP variety and naturally so as they have something called hybrid vigor. This is something that can make the plant ‘better’ than a standard Op variety. One of the first things to fall by the wayside in hybrids is flavour, this you will very quickly learn when you taste you first heirloom vegetable. As flavour in fruit and vegetables is not linked to a single specific gene that can turned on or off, it’s a complex mix of many genes that is incredibly hard to select for.

The main problem for a dedicated seed saver is that one will need to buy new hybrid seed every year to grow a new crop, as the seed cannot reliably be saved. On the flip side this is one of the main benefits to the large seed houses, as you need to keep going back for more seed every year. Hybrids as a rule are not ‘bad’ vegetables it’s just not possible to become self-sustainable using hybrid seeds, in addition you lose a lot of the wonderful flavours and aromas that are present in unique and historical heirloom vegetables.

Most Organic seeds on the market are typically hybrid seed. The main reason for this is that organic growers do not use any chemical control for disease or pest management so they need seed that has been bred to resist as much as possible pests and diseases. It must be mentioned that a lot of these problems, even in an organic environment are exacerbated with mono-culture practices and poor crop rotations. The same problem occurs here, the organic grower cannot save this hybrid seed from generation to generation.

Indicators like F1 or F2 in the variety name are often a sure sign that the variety is a hybrid. However this is not the case as I have seen many hybrids on the shelves this year that are not clearly identified as hybrids.

GMO Seeds (CANNOT be Organic)

Well, there is not much that needs to be said about “Genetically Modified Organisms” as these seeds are called. These are seeds that you want to steer far far away from. I not going to go GMO bashing in this post but any thinking person should be able to understand the dangers of GMO seed and what it can spell for the future of food production in the world. Even a small amount of contamination will destroy the purity of any Heirloom, Open Pollinated or Hybrid variety and something that people should actively stand up against. Almost every food product in South Africa has been contaminated with GMO food. Do some research and make you own decisions here.

So, now that we have run through a brief overview of the different seed types, where does this whole ‘organic’ thing fit in? I’m going to do this “broadly speaking”, ‘cos someone is bound to come after me with a pruning shear.

Growing food organically is a specific methodology used in the cultivation of plants, environment and soil, including additives that are variously put onto or into the soils, fertilization methods and the propagation of vegetables or food crops under specific controlled circumstances.  Generally a certification is required by a national or regional body to confirm that you are indeed complying to their statutes. Organic seed (which is the whole point of this post) is seed that is produced on specific farms that are certified as organic. Organic seed can be Open Pollinated, Heirloom or Hybrid seed but GMO can never be organic seed, as much as the large GMO houses would love.

Now the next question, what is the difference between the seed that Livingseeds supplies and organic seed? The answer is quite simple. The only difference is that we do not have a piece of paper saying we are organically certified.

In the 3 years that we have been on this property we have used only natural principles in our gardens. None of our manure is sourced from outside our community so we understand exactly where our compost/soil additives come from. We produce our own compost and vermicompost. We do not use chemicals on our plants nor do we use synthetic fertilizers. So, for all intents and purposes the seed we grow is 100% natural and organically grown. We just don’t have a sticker that says ‘Organically Produced’, because we have not gone through the certification process. Some of our seed we order in and hopefully that will change by the end of this growing season. My biggest complaint about ‘Going Organic’ is the cost of the ongoing annual certifications. All of this will need to be transferred onto someone. Personally I don’t see the benefit of paying more so that I can charge more, at the end of the day you will be the only loser. But then it’s entirely possible that I’m just one of those non-conformists that likes to buck the system.

Think about it like this. You have your own garden and like most gardeners that I speak to, you manage your garden on an ‘organic’ basis. So for all intents and purposes your vegetables are ‘organic’. If you plant an heirloom vegetable and harvest the seed, would you consider the seed to be organic? I would and I do……. I just can’t sell it as such.


What’s in our Garden

Wow, every evening when I get home, one of the first things is to have a look at what how my plants are doing.  What a pleasure to see your seeds and work growing right before your eyes. My mouth waters as I walk through and I think of the fresh heirloom tomatoes bursting with flavour or nice juicy beans eaten straight out of the garden.

With the unseasonal frost that we had a while ago, many of our beans and pumpkin varieties had to be replanted. Of the 12 pumpkin varieties that we have in the ground only one suffered no setbacks (Marina d’Chioggia) 2 varieties were knocked back but have managed to recover, but the rest had to be replanted from scratch, so much for starting the seed off early in a cold frame! The beans were very strange, in a single row of beans some were unaffected by the frost and then we had plants that were literally wiped out, we also had to replant a lot of the stuff. One of my friends who is a commercial seedsman lost whole trials of beans that had to be replanted.

We did a quick count last week, and we have well over 100 varieties in the ground right now, a lot of the stuff is new as we have again been blessed by a number of fellow heirloom gardeners who have given and sent us seed. We also have plenty of additional new varieties that needs to be planted but we just don’t have the space right now. We are in the process of doubling the size of our veggie patch so we will have about 4000 sqm under cultivation in the next month or so, which will give us the space to produce more varieties.

Spring is really here with new lambs, a new calf, goslings and poults (or as my one daughter calls them turklings) are charging all over the place.

Heads of commercial wheat, these will soon be ready for harvest.
Heads of commercial wheat, these will soon be ready for harvest.

We have now started to harvest our wheat and can’t wait till we have our own bread baked from real whole wheat flour that we have grown ourselves. I’m amazed to see the difference in the Hard Red Winter Wheat (An American Heirloom variety) and the normal commercial wheat that we planted for consumption this year. Have a good look at the different heads.

Heads of the American Hard Red Winter Wheat, notice the fat heads with very small awns.
Heads of the American Hard Red Winter Wheat, notice the fat heads with very small awns.

The awns on the heirloom variety are almost non-existent, we will have limited starter packs available of the Hard Red Winter Wheat this year, but from next season we will be able to supply bulk and starter packs.


The Edible Quote

“Any scientist who tells you they know that GMOs are safe and not to worry about it, is either ignorant of the history of science or is deliberately lying. Nobody knows what the long-term effect will be.”

~ Geneticist, David Suzuki, giving the 2008 Commonwealth Lecture in London