Heirloom seed refers to those seeds that have been saved and grown for multiple generations—hence the term “heirloom.” All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated.
Open-pollinated seeds are seeds as nature intended—they are pollinated naturally by insects, birds or wind and create biodiversity while increasing the plant’s genetic traits so that it is uniquely adapted to the region where it is grown. They can be grown and saved, and will produce seedlings just like the parent plant. In nature, compatible species of plants can cross-pollinate and create new species.
Hybrid seeds are created through hybridization, a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed by human intervention. Hybridization can occur naturally through random crosses, but commercially available hybrid seed, often labeled as F1, is deliberately created to breed a desired trait. While the original seeds are created through a natural process and provide many desirable traits, the resulting hybrid seed will not create seedlings like the parent plant. Thus, the seeds cannot be saved and must be purchased each season.
Genetically Engineered (GE) refers to high-tech methods used to directly combine genes of two different organisms that are not compatible and could never reproduce in nature. For example, genes from an arctic flounder, a fish that has “antifreeze” traits, may be spliced into a tomato in an attempt to prevent frost damage. Corporations developed GE seeds in order to capitalize on desirable traits relative to the conventional agricultural market—such as herbicide tolerance and pest resistance—by re-sequencing the DNA in a laboratory. The result of GE technology is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). Patents for the GMOs and their genes are issued to the corporation in order to protect the intellectual property and ownership of the seed traits.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved crops for GE development including soy, corn, cotton. Other crops have been approval as well and the list grows every year. Multiple varieties of each crop are currently available on the U.S. market. The USDA also allows corporations to trial unapproved GE crops in agricultural areas. These trial crops have been known to contaminate commercial non-GE varieties with GE traits.
The USDA does not recognize any difference between traditional hybridization and GE techniques. While the USDA refers to hybrids and GE seeds both as GMOs, the average layperson generally uses the term only when referring to the plants or seeds developed through GE technology.