What are Hybrid Seeds?
The term “hybrid,” which you’ll often see in seed catalogs, refers to a plant variety developed through a specific, controlled cross of two parent plants. Hybrids are often spontaneously and randomly created in nature when open-pollinated plants are naturally cross-pollinated with other related varieties; plant breeders just direct the process to control the outcome.
The advantage of growing hybrid seed compared to inbred, open-pollinated lines comes from the ability to cross the genetic materials of two different, but related plants to produce new, desirable traits that can’t be produced through inbreeding two of the same plants.
For example, most of today’s livestock and companion animals were created through crossing different breeds to create hybrids—from Guernsey cows to hairless cats to the Labra-Doodle!
A whole new world of food crops became available as a result of hybridization, including Canola, grapefruit, sweet corn, canteloupes, seedless watermelons, “burpless” cucumbers, as well as tangelos, clementines, apriums, pluots and other unique foods.
In fact, in addition to edible novelties, today’s methods of hybridization are helping us breed all sorts of drought and pest tolerant plants that are helping us survive and adapt to a changing climate.
Hybrids have another advantage too. Developing a non-hybrid, open-pollinated variety using classic plant-inbreeding methods can take six to ten generations. That’s a lot of time!
However, using the method of controlled genetic crossing devised by Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century (Remember those Mendel Box genetic tables from high school biology?), plant breeders can now produce hybrid seed that combines the desired traits of two pure parent lines in the first generation.
The oldest and simplest form of plant hybridization is corn detasseling. In this method, three rows of the father breed of corn are planted, and then one row of the mother, and over and over. The mother rows are detasseled (have their pollen removed) ensuring that any pollen they receive comes only from the father rows. The mother’s seeds can then be harvested as what is known as an F1 (first generation) hybrid.
Most hybrid seeds today are created in this low-tech, low-cost way, usually under row covers in isolated fields or in greenhouses. Some hybrids are created in labs using high-tech methods as well, but hybrids do not cross the species barrier.
There is another major distinction between open pollinated and hybrid seeds: If you grow out an open pollinated seed variety, keep it well isolated, and save it for seed, you will get offspring that are very similar to the parents. But, if you purchase an F1 hybrid and you save it for seed, and then attempt to grow it out, the next generation (F2) will be a very random mix of the parents DNA, and all the plants will be wildly different.
This means you can save open pollinated seeds, adapt them for your area over many growing seasons, and enjoy caring for the plants through their entire life cycle as they produce for you from generation to generation. But, if you grow an F1 hybrid seed and you like it, you must go back to the source you got it from if you wish to grow it out again.
Big seed companies like F1 hybrids because the process gives them proprietary ownership of each new variety. And because seed from F1 hybrid plants won’t produce uniform offspring, gardeners must purchase new seeds each year.
A Brief History of Hybrid Seeds
Hybrid seeds offer many benefits to U.S. and European farmers who have the money to buy them year after year, including greater yield, improved pest resistance, and more. However, the widespread introduction of hybrid seeds has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster for developing countries.
Launched in the 1960s, the Green Revolution aimed to increase grain yields worldwide by promoting the use of hybrid seed varieties that could be densely planted and required irrigation, mechanization and the heavy application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to get higher yields.
The underlying objective of the Green Revolution was to increase farm productivity in countries perceived to be susceptible to communism because of rural poverty and hunger. But rather than raising production by alleviating the highly unequal land ownership in these countries, the Green Revolution favored technological fixes.
To accomplish this agenda, the U.S. government promised countries like India and Mexico that the “new miracle seeds” would produce more food and lift their farming peasants out of poverty. U.S. agricultural and chemical companies even gave away free bags of hybrid seed and fertilizer to entice small subsistence farmers to try them.
Unfortunately it was all a dirty trick.
When the peasant farmers grew these new hybrids, they were indeed more productive, even though they required more fertilizer and water. But when they collected and saved the seed for replanting the next season—as they had done for generations and generations—none of it grew true to the parent crop, little food grew, and these poor farmers, having none of their open-pollenated traditional varieties left viable, had no choice but to go back to the big companies to purchase the hybrid seeds again for planting year after year.
U.S. companies like Cargill intentionally disrupted the traditional cycle of open-pollinated seed saving and self-sufficiency to essentially force entire nations to purchase their seeds, and the agricultural chemicals required to grow them.
Most of these poor subsistence farmers never had to pay for seed before, and could not afford the new hybrid seeds, or the new petrochemical fertilizers they required, and were forced to sell their farms and migrate to the cities for work. This is how the massive, infamous slums of India, Latin America, and other developing countries were created.
Many other farmers committed suicide, having lost everything they had, including the very means to feed themselves and their families. And once those farmers sold or abandoned their land, guess who bought it all up? That’s right. Agribusiness.
Hybrid seeds were the seminal foundation of corporate-controlled, industrial, petrochemical-dependent monocultures.
By the 1990s an estimated 95% of all farmers in the First World and 40% of all farmers in the Third World were using Green Revolution hybrid seeds, with the greatest use found in Asia, followed by Mexico and Latin America.
The world lost an estimated 75 percent of its food biodiversity, and control over seeds shifted from farming communities to a handful of multinational corporations.
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