Seed Packet Buzzword Bingo

Tired of playing buzzword bingo as you sift through seed packets for information? Here are a few plant industry terms decoded.

GMO: Genetically modified organisms are plants or animals which were altered using biotechnology. They contain a new gene or a new combination of genes. Why? To provide improved traits.

Seeds from genetically modified plants are sold only to farmers by the companies which produce them. Legal contracts which spell out exactly how the farmers can and cannot use the seeds are required. None of the seeds available at garden centers are genetically modified seeds.

Since ordinary consumers cannot get their hands on genetically modified seeds even if they wanted to, why do seed companies label their seed packets as non-GMO? Simple. It is a marketing tactic.

Feel free to purchase seed with this label, but know that other seeds on the rack without this label also do not contain genetically modified seeds.

Hybrid / F1 Hybrid: In the plant industry, these two terms are often used interchangeably. Hybrid seeds are the offspring of plants from the same species with different characteristics or plants from other species which were cross-pollinated. Natural hybrids can occur, but most commercial crops are produced by controlled cross-pollination.

Controlled cross-pollination over many years has created larger flowers and crops. Photo by Ashley Andrews.

Controlled cross-pollination is simply selectively breeding plants to improve their characteristics over time. For example, flowers like roses and veggies like potatoes and tomatoes were much smaller originally than they are now. Controlled cross-pollination over many years has created larger flowers and crops.

F1 hybrids are the first generation offspring produced when two pure-bred plant lines with desirable traits are cross-bred. F1 hybrids feature the desirable traits of their parents. But, seeds saved from F1 hybrids do not.

If you want to save seeds for next year’s garden, F1 hybrids are not for you. However, if you do not intend to save seeds and you fall in love with an F1 hybrid plant, go for it.

Heirloom/Heritage: Depending on where you live, either term may appear on a seed packet to indicate the same thing. Heirloom or Heritage seeds are old open-pollinated varieties of plants.

Some say heirlooms must be at least 50 years old. Others describe heirlooms as those introduced before Word War II. No matter where the line in the sand is drawn, these seeds are the ones you want to buy if you intend to save seeds.

Organic: Organic is a federal certification. It indicates the seeds were produced under strict conditions, with limited pesticides or other input. Organic seeds are not genetically modified, by federal definition. To learn more about organic standards, visit The USDA Organic Standards website.

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