Seed Complexities

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010 by Jenny Watts
    Feed roses to encourage a beautiful display of color later this month. Treat plants to prevent insect and disease problems.
    • Beautiful African Violets will decorate your indoor spaces with their masses of flowers in all shades of purple, blue and pink.
    • Fuchsias in hanging baskets make beautiful patio plants. They bloom all summer and attract hummingbirds to their pendulous blossoms.
    • When you plant your tomatoes, put a handful of bone meal in the bottom of the hole to help prevent blossom end rot on the fruit later on.
    • It’s time to put out oriole feeders. You can also attract them with fresh orange halves.

Open Pollinated, Hybrid, or GMO Seeds

Each time I plant a seed and watch it germinate several days later, I experience the magic and wonder of Nature. The complex information, which is carried in each and every seed, that tells it how to create one certain kind of plant, color of flower or size of tomato, is truly awesome. Most of the time we take this for granted and are just thrilled with the number of choices of tomatoes and peppers available to us. But a look behind the scenes shows us that even the scientists are just beginning to understand these complexities.

Let’s take corn, for instance. Twenty years ago, Golden Cross Bantam was available on all the seed racks and was by far the most popular variety of corn for homeowners. When you harvest this corn you “get the pot of water boiling first, then run out to the garden, pick the ears, and throw them into the boiling water.” That’s because as soon as the corn is picked, the sugar cells begin turning to starch, so time is of the essence. A nice benefit of Golden Cross Bantam corn is that you can save an ear of corn, dry it and plant the seed the following year. This is an open pollinated variety. Most of the seeds on seed racks are open pollinated varieties. Heirloom seeds are varieties that are at least 50 years old and they are generally open pollinated.

To create a hybrid corn, two varieties are crossed with each other by removing the tassels of one kind so that the second kind pollinates the first. To produce hybrid seed, parental lines are grown side by side in the field, and the cross must be repeated every time the seeds are produced.

In the early 1950s it was discovered that corn kernels that shriveled stored less starch and many times more sugar than the kernels of normal sweet corn. In 1961, they created a “supersweet” hybrid of “Iochief” and named it “Illini Chief.” From there they developed a three-way hybrid named “Illini Xtra Sweet,” which became the first commercially available supersweet corn. This corn lacked the enzyme which converted kernel sugars to starch after harvest.

Once grocery-store produce buyers learned about the extended shelf-life of supersweet corn, almost all the growers of sweet corn switched over to supersweet varieties. Canneries were also happy to process supersweet corn, which required no additional sugar. Other crosses have been made which make sweet corn resistant to fungus diseases such as rust and northern leaf blight. And the development continues as researchers make new hybrids with high sugar content, long shelf-life and creamy texture. Organic seeds are collected from plants that have been grown organically and can be either open pollinated or hybrids.

But these are all quite different from GMOs. A GMO is a plant that has been genetically modified through the addition in the laboratory of a small amount of genetic material from other organisms through molecular techniques. You won’t find GMO seeds on any seed racks.

GMO corn does not cross two types of corn, it crosses corn with a bacterium or fungus. In the case of Bt corn, the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, is injected into the corn gene to produce a protein that kills European corn borer, to reduce pesticide use. This sounds like a good idea however, along with the Bt gene, a gene which is not killed by antibiotics is injected, so that they can determine which genes successfully received the Bt gene. So this GMO corn has in it a resistance to antibiotics, which may be passed on to us when we eat it. This does not sound like such a good idea. In addition, the corn borers are now developing a resistance to Bt which may make this useful, mild pesticide ineffective.

In any case, there is a great deal to be learned about GMOs. FDA scientists have warned that genetic engineering differs from conventional practices and entails a unique set of risks. Long term studies have not been carried out. This is a very new technology and many scientists believe this whole area of GMOs needs more research. Because of these concerns with GMOs we should proceed with more caution before they are released into our environment.

In the mean time, enjoy your supersweet corn with dinner tonight.