What Are You Growing in Your Garden? All About Non-GMO Seeds

heirloom vegetable starts from non gmo seeds

Have you heard negative things about GMOs, and want to ensure you’re using non-GMO seeds in your garden? If so, you’re certainly not alone. But what exactly is a GMO? And how do you ensure the seeds used in your garden are non-GMO seeds? Believe it or not, the answers to these questions are much simpler than you probably realize.

While the truth behind GMOs might seem veiled in scientific mystery, these plants and their seeds play a significant role in modern agriculture. And their role will probably continue to grow from here. So does the average home gardener have anything to worry about when it comes to sourcing their flower, fruit, and vegetable seeds? Or is this search for non-GMO seeds just a misunderstanding?

What is a GMO?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism, but a more appropriate term is genetically engineered organism. Confusion and speculation surround these terms, especially in food marketing. But regardless of where you stand on the sustainability and ethics of this process, as a gardener and plant lover, it’s important to understand what this term really means.

To create a GMO seed “normal” plant seeds are brought into a laboratory. Here, scientists select genes from other organisms and add them to the seeds’ genetic material. Plants grown from these seeds then, in theory, display traits from these supplemented genes.

The most famous example of this is Bt corn, which grows from a corn seed containing part of the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria’s genetic code. This small piece of spliced DNA within the corn plant makes it resistant to many insects, without spray pesticides. That is obviously a benefit to farmers who rely on the health of their corn crops to survive. And to the corporations who use this corn to create livestock food, fuel, and oil.

At the moment, opinions on these seeds and their resultant plants are very split. GMO seed proponents cite less harm to the environment, better food nutrition content, and higher yields as a reason to embrace GMOs. And those who stand against these GMO seeds fear unfair patent lawsuits, cancer, and antibiotic resistance. But what role do these GMO seeds play in our home gardens? Surprisingly to many, no role at all.

What are Non-GMO Seeds?

At this time, all seeds available to home gardeners are non-GMO seeds. While GMOs are available for large-scale farmers and some commercial greenhouses, there aren’t any GMO seeds currently available to the average consumer.

You can’t walk into your local gardening center and purchase a pack of GMO seeds. You can’t even order them online. So, in short, all home garden seeds are non-GMO seeds.

But that doesn’t mean that all of these non-GMO seeds are the same. Differences in pollination, seed collection, and chemical treatments all play a role in how gardeners view certain seeds and their plant sources.

While some believe these factors have little effect on the final plant, others swear by one type of seed over another. In the end, it’s mostly just personal preference. But the best thing you can do is test these different seed types out for yourself.

How are Non-GMO Seeds Pollinated?

These pollination methods aren’t exclusive to non-GMO seeds. After all, both GMO and non-GMO seeds undergo pollination. But after pollination occurs and they harvest the seed, GMO seeds enter the laboratory for gene splicing. Meanwhile, non-GMO seeds go straight into the ground to continue their life cycles or enter storage for future planting.

As humans inserted themselves into the pollination process, two distinct types of pollination emerged. These methods are hybrid and open pollination. While these two pollination methods have little to no effect on the seed itself, they do play a role in the plant’s genetics and the genetics of subsequent generations.

Open pollination

Open pollination, though purposely used in plant breeding, is essentially just natural pollination. Wind, insects, and animals pass pollen from one member of a plant species to another. Or, in monoecious plants that grow separate male and female flowers, to a flower of the opposite sex on the same plant.

The primary limiting factor for this spread of genetic material is distance. But this helps create distinct populations of a species with a genetic variance between each locational group.

Like a semi-isolated population of people will eventually develop characteristic physical traits, so will a population of plants. While the search for maximum genetic diversity has taken over many of our agricultural efforts, there are benefits to having a homogenous plant population.

Since genes spread relatively evenly across members of the population, everyone has very similar physical traits. The genetic traits that best suit the plant and its environment will carry on to subsequent generations, regardless of if these traits are beneficial to humans. While humans aren’t directly interfering with pollination, the traits that will appear in future populations are consistent and very predictable.

And, like an interbred population of people will show occasional mutations that may or may not remain in the gene pool, so will a population of plants. Like red hair emerged in the human population from a genetic mutation, many plant traits also started this way.

Humans sometimes use a process called mutation breeding to trigger potentially beneficial mutations. But open pollination allows for these mutations to naturally occur, and farmers or gardeners can then isolate these genes if desired.


Hybrid pollination occurs when humans deliberately deliver pollen from one plant’s flower to another member of the same species. The intent of that is creating seeds with specific desirable traits. Most common fruit and vegetable plants are a result of centuries of hybridization. But now we just consider these plants the “norm” for each of their species.

While hybrid pollination isn’t a new concept, it does have a modern, legal definition. Today, “hybrid” seeds (usually those of vegetable plants) must have known parents and come from controlled breeding. You might see these seeds labeled as F1 seeds.

Unfortunately, hybrid pollination has some drawbacks. First, the future offspring created from these hybrid plants are unlikely to carry on the desired traits seen in their parents. Instead, traits from the offsprings’ grandparents and beyond start to emerge. That means, to continue to get consistent hybrid plants, seeds from the original parents are the only true source of this hybrid variety.

Apple trees are an example of this hybrid pollination dilemma. Every single apple tree of a single variety, from Honeycrisp to Granny Smith, is a clone of the original tree of that variety. And if you were to take the seeds from a Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, or any other type of apple tree, the fruit from this offspring would bear little to no resemblance to the apple from which the seed came.

What are Heirloom Seeds?

While researching or shopping for non-GMO seeds, you’re likely to come across something called an heirloom seed. These plant seeds are examples of open-pollinated seeds, but many have a distinct history.

Heirloom seeds are non-GMO seeds passed down through generations, much like a piece of heirloom jewelry. And some represent the cultures and heritage of ethnic groups around the world.

Heirloom seeds typically grew away from other members of their species, and therefore maintained a certain level of genetic isolation throughout the years. As a result, these seeds often serve as an example of older cultivars, or plant varieties chosen for their desirable traits, of fruit and vegetable plants.

Many gardeners claim that heirloom plants produce better-tasting and more nutritious fruit. And these seeds also come with all of the benefits of open pollination, including reliable genetic diversity in future generations.

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What are Treated Seeds?

Treated seeds are technically non-GMO seeds. But many gardeners, especially heirloom- or organic-focused ones, aren’t keen on these non-GMO seed varieties. Treated seeds are plant seeds that undergo chemical treatment between harvesting and planting.

These chemicals are usually pesticides or insecticides and help protect the plant throughout its lifetime. These non-GMO seeds are much more common in the farming world. But as a home gardener, you might come across them from time to time.

One of the largest arguments against treated seeds is the harm they can cause to pollinators like bees and birds. But some evidence points to treated seeds as a more environmentally friendly way to apply pesticides and insecticides.

Instead of spraying these chemicals across an entire field or garden, where they are likely to seep into the groundwater and beyond, they are applied directly to the seeds in smaller doses. But whether or not you agree with this take on treated non-GMO seeds is up to you.

Where to Buy Non-GMO Seeds

It’s not possible for home gardeners to buy GMO seeds. But many of the most popular distributors of non-GMO seeds are owned by companies that produce GMO seeds. If you’re personally against the development and use of these GMO seeds, then you’ll also want to avoid spending money on brands owned by these companies.

Some of the best non-GMO seeds come from:

Or even better, source your garden’s non-GMO seeds from online or local seed exchanges. These are a great way to obtain heirloom seeds that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to grow in your own garden. And in the process, you might meet some other avid gardeners in your area and learn a bit about their history.

If you don’t have a readily available seed exchange in your area, online seed exchanges are another great resource. Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are both online and mail-order seed exchanges that preserve heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. This way you can support the efforts to catalog and maintain heirloom seeds for years to come.

The Future of GMO Seeds and Gardening

Right now, home gardeners are only able to buy non-GMO seeds. But this could change in the future. Scotts Miracle-Gro, one of the biggest home gardening companies in America, is already working on GMO seeds.

If their trials are successful, genetically modified grass will hit the market shortly. This grass will have herbicide resistance. That allows homeowners to spray their yards without worrying about the effects these chemicals will have on their lawn.

While consumer-available GMO seeds are coming closer to reality every day, you don’t need to worry about your garden becoming full of GMOs anytime soon.

Skeptics of GMO technology will continue to push back against its development and implementation. And efforts to preserve heirloom seeds will ensure that traditional seed banks remain intact.

But if you’re one of the gardeners looking forward to the day you can buy GMO plants that produce more fruit, live longer, and fight disease, then you have a little bit longer to wait. Until then, you’ll have to live with boring, old non-GMO seeds.

Last update on 2022-01-27 at 20:02 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API


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