Friday, January 1, 2010

Where Do Hybrid Seeds Come From?


After reading mrbrownthumb's post about the trendy boycotting of Monsanto/Seminis seeds by us homegardeners, I decided to take his suggestion and call a couple of the seed companies I'd planned to order seeds from. (all the companies I order from are on the "safe seed list.") If you haven't read MBT's post, do check it out. The gist of it was, if you want to boycott something, don't be so quick to trust some random list of companies that supposedly don't buy seeds from big evil Monsanto. I'll be honest, I made the call to prove him wrong because I'm one of those chumps that just assumes people don't put untrue stuff on the Internet, especially people like gardeners.

So, I called one of the companies and sure enough, they are not Monsanto-free. The conversation was quite interesting but not as much about Monsanto as it was about hybrid seeds.

There's something that has always bothered me about hybrids but the fact is that I knew very little about them. Several times, my friend J and I have had conversations like "are hybrids are inherently bad? If so, why?" Here's the extent of what I knew about hybrids.
  1. They are a cross between two different varieties
  2. They can be more prolific producers and more disease resistant than open-pollinated varieties
  3. If you save seeds from a hybrid, God knows what you'll get the next year you plant it. Probably nothing close to the fruit you saved the seed from and maybe no fruit at all.
As it turns out, most hybrid seed is produced in other countries where labor is cheap.

Many hybrids require hand pollination which means that developing them is very labor intensive. Each year, the male and female plants are grown in a very controlled environment, taking care to prevent cross-pollination which could destroy an entire crop. Pollen is manually collected from male plants and then the female plants are hand pollinated. During a tomato growing season, for example, the pollination period is usually between 1-1.5 months and requires 40-60 workers.

Most hybrid seeds are produced in Taiwan, China and India and then sold to seed companies all over the world. Yes, to many of the same seed companies listed on the "safe seed list." So, if the seeds you plant in your vegetable garden don't come from Monsanto, but they come from countries who pay very low wages for very hard work, is that OK? At the end of the day, we're growing our own food thinking we're saving the world when in reality, every time we buy a pack of hybrid seeds, it's like buying a t-shirt from WalMart that was made by some child in a third world country. There really isn't much difference.

It also occurred to me that marketing hybrids as "more prolific producers" with "better disease resistance" is all fine and dandy but I suspect that the seed sellers are not as concerned with our per-plant tomato yield as they are convincing us to buy seeds that we'll love and need to buy from them year after year (remember, you can't save hybrid seeds). It's sort of like a crack addiction. Because of the way hybrids are produced, you're forced to go back to the seed companies to buy over and over again.

This new knowledge about hybrid seeds has catapulted me into yet another moral crises about my lifestyle and the choices I make.

I'm not particularly against the idea of hybrids. To me, it's sort of like interracial relationships. And I'm OK with those, too. The problem I have is with the outsourcing of yet another product to countries who don't pay fair wages for work. I'm having a hard time seeing how this is much less bad than what Monsanto is doing.

I guess it comes down to what your core values and core pet peeves are.

I plan to continue to buy seeds from companies whose seed stock does not primarily come from Monsanto. After all I've heard and read about Monsanto, I don't want any of my money in their pockets. It's like going over those huge metal blades when you return your rental car. I can't go backward now that I know. As I understand it, this will become less and less a problem in the coming years because Monsanto has made it clear they are uninterested in producing seeds us home gardeners like.

My rationale for continuing to buy seeds from the few companies who I normally do business with this this. They are small businesses doing the best they can. And while I wish there was a lot more morality in business, I also get that making a profit isn't that easy, especially if you're in the business of selling seeds to the home gardener.

How can we be as pure as possible given all the politics of seed buying? Probably turn more to Seed Savers Exchange and other groups for our seeds. Or, at least start purchasing heirloom seeds then saving our own seeds each year so that we are not required to support Monsanto, or the outsourcing of seed production. But beware, I suspect the heirloom seeds are not produced by some little old lady on a big ole farm. How and where commercially sold heirloom seeds are produced would probably make us wince, too.

Wherever you decide to buy your seeds from, at least be sure to know what you're getting and where they came from. I found this paper describing hybrid seed production very interesting. Check it out.

5 comments:

  1. Good post Gina.

    Renee at Renee's Garden has a good article about Hybrid seeds. I think one of the thing that is sad about all this is that hybrids are getting kind of a bad reputation because people are mixing the term with GMOs.

    http://www.reneesgarden.com/articles/heirlooms.html

    Even many of the so-called heirlooms had to have been hybrids at some point in their history. Very little of what we eat looks exactly like it did in "the wild."

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  2. Hi Gina, Interesting post. The problem with researching companies is, I think it's hard to find "good" ones. I just ordered some seeds from Monticello, but it ever occurred to me to ask where the seeds come from. I'm hoping what they grow there, but... Maybe I'll call. Do you know where Botanical Interests gets its seeds? Since I love tomatoes, I can't be anti hybrid... I love heirloom tomatoes and they seem to be true to form, but somewhere, somehow the cultivars were created from hybridizing--and I'm not clear on how that works, but MBT's link may be helpful. Anyhoo, Interesting post, thanks!

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  3. Nothing wrong with hybrids per se. Nothing inherently guaranteed "ok" about heirlooms. I think that research is the key. It's not so simple to avoid Monsanto/Seminis (but that's a GREAT start), but it's about knowing where your seeds come from completely. I like seeds sourced locally. I like heirloom varieties, but not blindly. Check every single company that you order from. All of them. Every time.

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  4. MBT - thanks. I'll check out Renee's article.

    Monica - I believe that Botanical Interests only gets one seed (the Celebrity Tomato) from Seminis. This is a very popular tomato for home gardeners and Seminis still has the PVP (Plant Variety Protection) on it. Otherwise, I think they get their seeds from a variety of places including some small growers. I would suggest that you call them. I believe that they would tell you the source for any seed you were interested in. I found them to be very transparent, which I appreciated.

    Compostings - I would love to be able to get local seeds, too! I'll be honest, all this stuff is sort of taking the fun out of ritual of browsing seed catalogs. Thanks for visiting my blog!

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  5. If you really want to be freaked out, watch 'The Future of Food' (the links to the film are on my blog post here: http://happyhobbyhabit.blogspot.com/2008/11/youtube-gem.html)
    And I was really, really ticked at Jim Cramer for suggesting people actually invest in them! http://happyhobbyhabit.blogspot.com/search?q=jim+cramer

    Oh, and by the way - it's time to start Winter Sowing in those milk jugs!
    Ahem. lol.

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