- Helpful definitions that demystify seed labels -

Heirloom seed

Generally defined as an open pollinated variety that has resulted from natural selection rather than a controlled hybridization process.  Some sources say an "heirloom seed" variety must be at least 50 years of age to be considered an heirloom and this topic still seems to be hotly debated.  Seed saved from an heirloom produces plants with the same characteristics as the parent.


Open Pollinated

Open pollinated seed varieties are those that result from pollination by insects, wind, self-pollination or other natural forms of pollination. If you save seeds from open-pollinated varieties and grow them, they will come true, meaning that the seeds will produce plants with characteristics or traits like the parent plant from which the seeds were harvested (Assuming they did not cross pollinate with another of the same family.

Certified Organic

When you see the phrase "Certified Organic" on a seed packet, it has distinct legal meaning.  It can ONLY be used for seed by growers who are in compliance with all the detailed rules and regulations specified by the USDA's National Organic Program.  While other countries have their own systems, in the US, organic regulations specify that the land in which crops are grown cannot have had prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest, and the operation must be managed according to an Organic System Plan that is approved and regularly inspected by a USDA accredited certifier.   Organic seeds are grown strictly without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; the use of sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering are also prohibited. 


Hybrid / F1 or first generation hybrid occurs when a plant breeder selects two pure lines (plants that produce identical offspring when self-pollinated) and cross-pollinates them to produce a seed which combines desirable characteristics or traits from both parents.  Common traits plant breeders work to increase in hybrids might include, for example, disease resistance, uniformity, earliness, or color.  Hybrid seeds are often more expensive, due to the high cost in production. Seeds can be saved from hybrids; however, plants grown from that seed will not come true.  In other words, they may lack the desirable characteristics of the parents. 

GE (Genetically Engineered)

Some people use the term GMO or Genetically Modified Organism. Genetic Engineering describes the high-tech methods used in recent decades to incorporate genes directly into an organism.  The only way scientists can transfer genes between organisms that are not sexually compatible is to use recombinant DNA techniques.  The plants that result do not occur in nature; they are "Genetically Engineered" by human intervention and manipulation. We do not sell GE seeds. 


Unlike organic, which has a clear set of standards, the FDA has never actually created any regulations for what "natural" actually means. On food labels USDA allows the use of the term "natural" to be used in meat and poultry labeling on products that contain no artificial ingredients or added color. The product also must be only minimally processed. The label must explain the use of the term natural, for example, no added coloring; minimally processed.  There is not a definition for seed that we are aware of.   There is Certified Naturally Grown. Certified Naturally Grown is based on the "Participatory Guarantee System" model of certification. These requirements are much less strict than Certified Organic. So currently the word "natural" or "100% natural" means a whole lot of nothing on a seed label. 

"100% Non-GMO" (Genetically Modified Organism)

We have seen this pop up recently on many seed sites and we have had many phone calls asking us about this.  We don't believe anyone can say this with a clear conscience or be "100%" correct.   First off, how do they know this?  Did they test the seed in a genetic lab like Genetic ID as reputable seed companies do?  Ask them!  Do they even know which crops have genetically engineered counterparts and could have possible contamination?  Do any of us?  Many crops are being developed that we are not aware of.  A number of GE crops have already been introduced, but there are many others that are being grown and tested all over the world.  Wheat is one that is being tested, but still hasn't been currently released. 


If seed companies making these claims were testing, they would discover that different samples of corn, for instance, could give very different results from the same bag, depending on which seeds were sampled.  In other words, you could open a 50# bag of corn, take a sample and get GE contamination.  However, the next sample may not contain any contamination at all depending on the percent/level of contamination and a number of other factors.  We have seen this happen more than once.  So, how could you claim that this seed (or any seed) is "100% GMO Free"?  You will notice we say "Please be aware that a negative test result, while not guaranteeing genetic purity, greatly improves your chances that the seed is not contaminated with Genetically Engineered traits. PCR Analysis tests are costly, but we are committed to our stance on GE contamination in our seed." However, we would never claim that it is "100% GMO Free" How could you?


Even if a seed company grew their own seed (VERY few do these days) you still could not say that you were "100%" sure there wasn't any GE contamination.  For example, we know that GE corn pollen drifts for miles on the trade winds. Trucks spill small amounts of Genetically Engineered soy and other crops along roadways regularly. GE Canola is now found growing in the wild. Planes drop-seed hundreds of acres from the sky in the case of Genetically Engineered rice.  We now have entire forests of Genetically Engineered trees.  Scientist do not completely understand the level of GE contamination in our environment, nor what effects it has.  This topic is hotly debated and the idea of a seed company making a blanket statement that they have "100% GE free" seed is absurd. 

Treated Seed

These seeds could be treated with pesticides or fungicides. You would not necessarily know that the seeds were treated unless you bought certified organic seeds.  Current rules for the USDA certified organic program  prohibit the use of treated seed.  So just because it says "all natural" or even "untreated" what does that mean?  Who certifies that?  As you have just read, "all natural" or "natural" literally means nothing other than fluff or fancy words on a seed packet.  Many seeds that are imported into this country are treated/fumigated for pest and disease in quarantine.  Those seeds then go on to be put in pretty packages with all sorts of words and pretty pictures that basically mean a whole lot of nothing! 


So now you have a little education about seeds.  We trust you can now make better informed choices and buy from certified heirloom organic seed companies.  All legally certified organic seed companies will have a copy of their organic seed certification.   Ask for it!

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