Heirlooms, Hybrids, and GMOs

Octopus Tomato Tree

This is an octopus f1 hybrid tomato. This one has been growing for 18 months. It takes about 8 months before the first fruit appears. It is held up by a large trellis.

I published a video on how to cross-pollinate tomato plants. I was a little taken back by some of the criticism I received. One viewer said, “We are trying to prevent cross-pollinations. Why would you do it on purpose?” Other objections include concerns over GMO, corruption of the plant, and so on.

While reading these critical emails I thought, Hmmmm. I wonder if I should post an article on this topic? There might be a little misinformation going around that I ought to dispel. Since some gardeners don’t know the difference between GMO and Hybrids, we should begin by explaining the various differences. In doing so, it will be clear what value growers find in ‘mixing up the gene pool’.


The word heirloom means: A valuable object that has belonged to a family for generations.

When it comes to plants, the word heirloom implies that the breed has been available for generations. It is an established breed and hasn’t been mixed with other breeds from the same plant type. In this article, I’ll be focusing on my favorite plant, the tomato.

An heirloom tomato is one that is an established variety that has been grown for many years. But keep in mind, no variety is ‘the original’. Many heirloom varieties have originated from various countries where they have been separated from other types and growers have saved seeds from desirable fruit. Over time, tomatoes from Russia greatly differ from tomatoes from America. That’s also why Italian breeds have traits that vary greatly from ones grown in Australia, China, South America, and so on. As people migrate around the world and move to new lands, sojourners take their favorite tomatoes with them.

When a grower raises a plant that has unique qualities that are desirable, such as flavor, size of fruit, disease resistance, heat or cold tolerance, etc., they select seeds from that plant and carry those seeds into the next growing season. Even without intending to grow a new variety, plant changes will occur over time. Because the variety has been consistent for generations of growing seasons, it is considered an heirloom. It is not cross-bred; but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed.

Once a variety has been stable and grown for long periods of time, it is considered an heirloom. Even though several varieties may have a common ancestor, they can vary greatly over time by selective planting and harvesting. That is why there are so many options among heirloom varieties.

Purist growers claim that heirlooms are the only source of true genetic diversity, but this is not always the case. Genetic depression occurs in some heirlooms when various genetic traits have been lost due to selective harvesting of seeds. Many heirloom varieties have limited production, lack disease resistance, and lack many of the traits once present in their genetic past.

One great advantage to heirlooms is their stability. The seeds you harvest will produce new plants mostly identical to the parent. Variations still occur, but the longer a variety is stable, the less likely it will produce a different trait than the parent.

Stable varieties are valuable when attempting a cross-bred hybrid.


A hybrid is NOT the same as a GMO. A hybrid is created when the pollen of one variety is used to pollinate the stamen of a different variety. While some varieties of heirlooms were derived by growers keeping only the seeds from their favorite plants, other heirlooms began as hybrids. Once a hybrid is stabilized, it is no longer considered a hybrid and in future generations, it will be considered an heirloom.

Some hybrids are cross-pollinated hybrids of previous cross pollination. Some are two varieties with desirable traits. The tomato breeder might pick out a highly productive tomato, and pollinate it with a variety that is disease resistant. Or one that has a flavor he or she desires. Or a plant that is more compact.

The breeder takes the pollen from one variety and pollinates the stamen of another. In some cases, using the female from one plant will have different results than cross pollinating the female of the other plant – even though it is the mixture of the same plants.

Cross pollinating will not affect the fruit that is produced, but it will affect the seeds within that fruit. When the seeds are harvested and planted, they will produce a plant and fruit that is a combination of both parents. Depending on the varieties, there may be different results from the same batch of seeds. Other hybrids will consistently produce the same results when two specific varieties are crossed.

The first set of seeds from the cross pollinations are known as an f1 hybrid. F1 indicates that it is the direct offspring of the original cross. Once those plants produce fruit, the seeds can be harvested and replanted. The next generation will be known as an f2-hybrid. The next harvest and replant will be the f3-hybrid.

F2 seeds are when the process of de-hybriding a variety begins to take place. A breeder will grow a large number of seeds and only keep those that closely resemble the cross they were looking for. The dehybriding will continue on the f3 generation. More of the seeds will resemble the desired result, and those seeds will be harvested and seeds from the undesirable plants will be discarded. By the fifth generation, the breed will become mostly stable, but some plants will revert back since it takes a while to weed out the genes that don’t fit the goal of the grower.

Some hybrids revert fully. Others are unable to reproduce. Others still produce a mixture of results, allowing the breeder to locate desired plants.

The advantages of hybrids should be obvious. It allows growers to obtain a combination of flavor and productivity, productivity and disease resistance, plant size and tolerance, or any number of combinations.

Another advantage is that when genetic information is lost, it can be reintroduced to future generations by crossing a favorite heirloom with needed traits.


There is much controversy over GMO plants – or Genetically Modified Object plants. Instead of selective breeding or cross pollinating, desired traits are engineered into the plant by artificial means. It is man-made introductions in the lab. GMO plants allow corporations to select specific traits and even turn off certain traits in the lab. This allows manufactured seeds that can produce food but not seed that can reproduce the next generation. Sterile seeds force growers to keep buying from the supplier, instead of saving seeds and replanting. It also allows companies to introduce intellectual property rights into the genetic code, thus allowing them to patent lab-created seeds.

The information I struck through above came from a source that presented inaccurate information. The intellectual property rights is the issue at hand, not the inability to reproduce. Because there is so much misinformation and people need to make informed decisions, I posed several questions to Carly S. at Monsanto. She clarified the issue with the following:

GMO is not used to develop sterile seeds. …I know for a fact that none of Monsanto’s biotech seeds are “terminator seeds”. Although the reproduced seed may not always contain all the same characteristics of the original seed (much like what happens to the seeds from hybrids), this is not what “forces” growers to keep buying the same seeds from seed companies. What does keep farmers buying from seed companies is the technology use agreement that they are required to sign to purchase the seeds. This agreement states that they will not save their reproduced seeds for future planting. This is much like the laws around music and software. Companies must patent their technology, especially if it is self-replicating, to protect their intellectual property. Otherwise, they are spending millions of dollars to only sell the product once. 

For more information on Terminator Seeds, see the article at http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/terminator-seeds.aspx

Critics claim that genetically modified food could be harmful for consumption, and many fear that genetic engineering is man playing God in the lab.

I’ll leave this for others to debate.

GMO is lab-created. Hybrids are insect or gardener cross-pollinated. Hybrids are no different than what happens in nature. Bees introduce pollen from one plant to the other. Creating a hybrid is being intentional about cross pollinating instead of hoping a bee will do it for you.

And now you know.

For more information on GMO, visit my article, GMO and the Gardener – Should we be afraid?

Eddie Snipes 2013



Heirlooms, Hybrids, and GMOs — 32 Comments

  1. Pingback: Heirlooms, Hybrids and GMOs, Oh My! | SLEUTH 4 HEALTH

  2. GMO is when they remove ANY and ALL nutritional value. It is often a seedless plant and has no nutrition, like sweet corn. It only has 1% protien and that is in the very small end of the kernel. 99% of it is High fructose syrup which the human body can not digest. It makes people fat as the body tries to sweat it out. GMO is NEVER a good thing. they also engineer int he pesticide and the retention of the saem when sprayed, so it poisons us all.

    • GMO simply means Genetically Modified Organism. It is genetic engineering. It can be any genetically engineered change. It does not mean that all nutrition has been removed. There may be cases where this is true, but most of the time it is not. High fructose is not produced by the GMO corn kernel. High Fructose corn syrup is processed sugars. It is produced by enzymes added in order to create the change. It has nothing to do with GMO – though a GMO may be engineered to create more sugars, but that is not the same as high fructose. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-fructose_corn_syrup for details on how this sweetener is developed.

      A GMO can be engineered to take away seed production, and while that may affect nutrition, it doesn’t always do so. The pesticides you are referring to is most likely nicatoid based products such as certain corns. Nicotine is a natural pesticide. For example, some people grow tobacco and use its leaves to produce an organic spray that kills pests without chemicals. Nicatoid based crops have been engineered to produce nicotine in the plant (such as corn) so it will kill pests and the farmer won’t have to spray crops.

      This sounds good on the surface, but it has other side affects such as killing honey bees and other insects that pollinate the crops. This has been directly linked to the Colony Collapse Disorder in bees, though Monsanto and other companies that profit from this deny the link. There are also questions about the long term effect of consuming nicatoid based products.

      While you bring up a few good points, you have a lot of facts wrong. If you are going to oppose GMO, there are some very good reasons to do so, but citing erroneous information is not the way to do it. Get informed and present the facts. Don’t make false claims. It only makes people think that GMO opposition is unfounded panic.

  3. Hi, we are starting to look for plants for our vegetable garden this spring/summer. How can we make sure that we are not buying a GMO plant? Do you know of any specific places that would carry the non-GMO varieties? Thanks so much!

    • Victory seeds is a very good source – http://www.victoryseeds.com. So is Johnny’s seeds – http://www.johnnyseeds.com/. Both of these specialize in heirloom seeds. I also like some of the bigger sellers like burpee.com. They have both hybrid and heirloom.

      GMOs are not generally for us small time growers. Soy, corn, and large crops are the target of Monsanto. Very few home garden seeds are gmo. At least not at this point. For most garden seed supply companies, your choice is hybrid or heirloom.

      • what about tomatoes–we hear most toms for sale in america are gm- d is this not true?? can you confirm or deny for us europeans …. ta

        • I have never seen tomatoes listed as a gmo product on any site. I know the plants you buy are not GMO. The store bought tomato fruit isn’t GMO either, unless there is something new on the market. Most are hybrids, but not GMO. There is a big difference.

    • While it may be true that Monsanto is buying up smaller companies (as all large corporations do), there is a lot of misinformation out there. For example, Infowars lists Johnny’s seeds as a company owned by Monsanto. This is not true. Johnny’s seeds are wholly owned by the employees and is not owned by Monsanto. See http://www.johnnyseeds.com/t-ownership.aspx

      Even if a company is bought by Monsanto, that does not mean seeds become GMO. GMO is a significant investment of time and money. Monsanto is money-driven. If it’s not profitable, they are not going to engineer changes into the genetic code. If you read up you will see that the focus of GMO is the big money making crops.

      Many companies make good money off creating hybrid varieties. But the problem is that you can’t patent a hybrid. All you can do is keep it a secret as to which varieties you are crossing. You can patent the name, but not the pollen and seed. GMO can be patented because information is introduced that is not part of the natural process.

      Monsanto is in court as we speak, suing a farmer for buying and raising crop from a second generation seed they engineered. Though it is a seed from a seed, Monsanto claims intellectual property rights since the second generation seed contains the information they engineered. They cannot do this with natural seed. It is a guarantee that unless you see a notification of intellectual rights, the seed is not GMO. They claim all rights to GMOs they create. If there is not a warning against replanting and selling the seeds produced from their seed, it is not GMO.

    • Here is a link that dispels the claim that Burpee is owned by Monsanto. Several sites claim that Burpee is owned by Monsanto, but this proves that they are not.

      It should also be noted that Monsanto owns Seminis, but Seminis is not a GMO engineering company. Seminis is a seed producer that was bought by Monsanto in 2005. Once the acquisition was complete, Seminis and the thousands of companies that buy their seed were targeted as being part of the conspiracy. So if anyone buys from Seminis – whether the seed is heirloom, hybrid, or anything else, they are immediately labeled as a suspect company on sites like infowars and any who repeat their claims without verifying the facts.

      So far I have checked the first 5 companies listed as being owned by Monsanto, and 0 out of 5 are actually owned in part or in whole by Monsanto. If the information is 0-5, that should tell you that most of the information out there is not worthy of repeating.

  4. It’s also interesting to see the evolution of a rumor. It’s like a game of whisper. Infowars has a revised list of ‘suspect’ companies. They say it’s a list of companies either “Owned by Monsanto or sell small precentages of seeds from them.” In other words, if a company sells any seed that Monsanto sells (GMO or not), they are added to the list.

    The next person repeats the list, but manages to leave off the phrase, “or sells a small percentage of seeds from them.” Then people think a company is owned by Monsanto when they are not. Monsanto does not only produce GMO seeds, but people jump on the conspiracy bandwagon and make everything that touches Monsanto part of the threat. Then if a small company buys seed from a reseller who gets it from Monsanto, they are targeted as part of the conspiracy.

    People spend so much time calling everything a demon behind the tree that it becomes impossible to tell what is truly a threat. This makes people either boycott an honest company, or throw out the whole concern as unfounded. Stay with the facts so the problem can be clearly seen. Exaggerating the problem does more to help GMO companies than to hurt them.

  5. Thank you Mr. Snipes for posting your comments. Nice to see a “Voice Of Reason” amongst all the ignorant &/or uninformed dross out there.

  6. Do you know where this tree is located? Do they have a website? I would be interested to know how long this tree manages to live. Thanks!

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    • At this point, you can’t. Some people use this picture to sell Italian Tree tomatoes. While Italian tree gets big (up to 15 feet high), this one is privately produced. They have one at Epcot Center and a few other places. This picture was taken in China, where this hybrid was developed. But this isn’t available to the public. At least not at this point.

  8. I think there is confusion because of how or government defines GMO. Althoughthe term “GMO” applies to genetically engineered plants, or government also considers any organism that is modified (even naturally), as genetically modified. I think it’s a bit misleading, and I think it’s deliberate.
    I choose to always buy organic. This way, I know I’m avoiding synthetic, toxic chemicals/pesticides, and I also avoid GE “food”.
    In order to qualify for a USDA Organic label, the product must be 100% GMO-free, and 97% percent of it must contain ingredients that were not cultivated with synthetic chemicals. It allows for some cisgenic cross-breeds, but it does not allow for transgenic cross-breeds.
    Can you tell me of this tomato tree is a cisgenic or transgenic breed? And was it cultivated completely free of synthetic pesticides?

  9. Pingback: Octopus Tree : la plus grande plante de tomates du monde

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