I write about gardening every day and get very little negative feedback… yet every time I include the term “F1 hybrid” in a text, like a few days back, I receive angry emails from people accusing me of promoting GMOs. I don’t understand why is there so much confusion between the two: F1 hybrids have nothing – absolutely nothing! – to do with GMOs. They’re two very different things.
So let’s clear things up.
The term GMO means “genetically modified organism”. The term refers to a plant (or animal, but I limiting my explanations to plants here) into which a human has inserted genetic material from another organism (it could be from a plant, a micro-organism or even an animal) without going through the “normal process”, that is, sexual reproduction (pollination in the case of plants). In other words, humans have modified the plant’s DNA.
There are, for example, strains of field corn and flour corn containing the genes of Bt (Bacilllus thuringiensis), a bacteria, that give plants resistant to insects, and “Roundup ready” strains of corn, canola and soybeans that have genes inserted into them that make them resistant to herbicides.
Also, it is important to understand that no GMO seed is presently sold to the general public and therefore home gardeners don’t have to worry about buying GMO seeds by accident. True enough, the food you buy in the supermarket could be a genetically modified organism (most papayas are, for example) or could contain GMOs, but GMO seeds just aren’t found in seed packets. There are many experiments going on with GMO vegetables, including GMO tomatoes and potatoes, but so far, none are being marketed.
Now for a total change of subject: F1 hybrids.
A F1 hybrid is a plant (or animal) resulting from the cross between two different strains, races, species or genera. The result of a first generation of crossing is called the filial 1 generation, shortened to F1. Usually, F1 hybrids perform better than non-hybrid plants, but their seeds are more expensive because they need to be pollinated manually, usually in greenhouses. F1 seed is widely available in seed packets.
F2 hybrids are less commonly sold. They result from the second generation (filial 2 generation), that is, when you self-cross an F1 plant. They are cheaper than F1 seeds because they are generally produced by open pollination (i.e. seed growers allow bees or the wind do the job), but are not as reliable in appearance or performance as F1s.
Dawn of Time
F1 hybrids are nothing new. They have existed since the dawn of time and are found abundantly in nature. For example, peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a natural F1 hybrid resulting from a cross between water mint (Mentha aquatica] and spearmint (Mentha spicata]. The two regularly cross in the wild and peppermint is found wherever the two species grow close together.
From the dawn of agriculture some 11,000 years ago, our ancestors have been harvesting seed from superior varieties to sow the following year, thus gradually increasing the quality of their crops. They learned they often got a major improvement by planting two varieties of exceptional quality close to each other, then harvesting their seeds. These were the first controlled F1 hybrids.
Once the role of pollination in producing seed was better understood, starting in the mid-1800s, hybridization as we know it today, where a human manually transfers pollen from one plant to another, began in earnest. It is now the main method used to develop new plants and just about every plant you grow or consume is a hybrid. Even heritage vegetables are of hybrid origin. They’re older hybrids, but hybrids nonetheless.
In hybridization, two related plants are crossed: two tomatoes, for example, or two marigolds, usually with the goal of creating a superior variety. Sometimes, plants with a somewhat more distant degree of kinship are crossed. Triticale, a cereal grain (× Triticosecale), for example, results from a cross between two plants of different genera, wheat (Triticum) and rye (Secale). However, both plants, although a bit distantly related, are still grasses. In hybridization, there is no question of crossing a sunflower with a goldfish!
So now you know: you can buy F1, F2 or hybrid seeds without fear of accidently growing a GMO. Just relax and garden!