These carrot seeds are F1 hybrids… but not GMOs!

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.


20170303D.jpgThe term GMO means “genetically modified organism”. The term refers to a plant (or animal) 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 and flour corn that contain genes derived from Bt (Bacilllus thuringiensis), a bacteria, that give plants insect resistance, 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 seed 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.

F1 Hybrids

Now for a total change of subject: F1 hybrids.

The first generation of a cross between two different plants is the F1 generation.

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.

The best-selling garden tomato ‘Celebrity F1’ is an F1 hybrid. And all those designer dogs that are so popular these days, like the Cockapoo (Cocker spaniel x Poodle), are F1 hybrids. Do you see even a tinge of GMO in them?

If you self-cross an F1 hybrid (use its own pollen to fecundate its flower), this will give the F2 generation, often with a mixed bag of traits.

F2 hybrids are less commonly sold. They result from the second generation (filial 2 generation), that is, when you fertilize an F1 plant with its own pollen. 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. Often long-forgotten and not necessarily desirable traits show up.

The F2 generation of a designer dog is called… a mutt!

Since the 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.

To create a hybrid, be like a bee and carry pollen from one flower to the flower of a different variety.

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. For example, triticale (× Triticosecale), a cereal grain, 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!8798320066590

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

7 comments on “F1 hybrids are not GMOs!

  1. Pingback: F1 hybrids are not GMOs! – Garden Centres & Landscaping

  2. Great information here! Too often hybrids get a bad rap, but they are often a good choice for home gardeners. Tomatoes like the Celebrity you mention and the ever popular Sun Gold are always dependable performers for me, and tasty too!

  3. I’ve never seen any science that shows eating a GMO food is harmful – just trying to understand the outrage about GMOs.

  4. Wonderful explanation of genetic crosses! I thought that the only foods grown with GMO seed were sugar beets, corn, and soybeans. I’d like to hear more about papayas (and what they modified them for).

    • Papayas have been genetically modified to prevent ring spot disease. No one is claiming the modification is harmful, but the resulting fruit is a GMO.

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