The Difference Between Heirlooms, Hybrids, GMOS, and Gene Editing

Confusion and common myths may deter some people from choosing healthier, tastier foods, but that would be a mistake
By Yelena Sukhoterina, Organic Lifestyle Magazine
June 18, 2018 Updated: June 21, 2018

Avoiding genetically modified (GM) foods is a challenge, as mostly they remain unlabeled. Many consumers are also confused about what these foods are, or are under the persistent misconception that “all foods have been modified anyway.”

That is not true, and there are stark differences between foods that have changed through the creation of heirloom varieties and hybridization, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), in which the DNA has been altered, as well as the products of other new gene editing technologies, like CRISPR.

These differences have the potential to affect consumers’ health. Thus, understanding which foods have been modified, and how, is important.

Heirloom Seeds Are the Chosen Ones

Heirloom seeds are often prized by farmers as the best seeds available. They are the best of every crop that came before it. The process of creating heirloom varieties is absolutely natural and can be done by anyone.

All it takes is harvesting the strongest, best-looking seeds from the best plants. For example, say a farmer grew a whole row of tomato plants, but a couple stood out as bigger than the rest with larger yields. The farmer may then choose the best of the tomatoes from these plants (often chosen by size or color) and leave them for seed collecting. Using this process, year after year, the farmer cultivates quality heirloom seeds.

Heirloom foods are may be tastier and have better pest resistance, developed over decades.

These heirloom seeds are often passed down generation to generation, and they keep improving with time. They were the most popular seeds throughout history until large-scale farming became common. On large farms, the field technologies do not have the capacity to collect the best seeds. Heirloom foods are grown by primarily small farmers and gardeners.

Today, some farmers still like to specialize in heirloom varieties, and some seed companies sell nothing but heirlooms. The best way to support these foods is to buy heirloom produce from small farms.

Great heirloom vegetables and fruits to try are lemon cucumbers and “Mexican Sour Gherkin” cucumber, “Pink Accordion” tomato, “Lebanese Bunching” eggplant, “Green Nutmeg” melon, “Romanesco” broccoli, and “Chioggia” beet.

Hybrids: Natural, Yet Limited

Hybrid foods are also created without the use of laboratories and genetic editing. It is done by controlling pollination to cross two different varieties or species of plants. Mass commercial hybridization began in the 1950s.

Commercial hybrid seeds are labeled as F1, but there is a huge flaw in growing them. They produce the intended harvest once, but the follow-up seeds are unpredictable and often unusable. Farmers who use hybrids have to buy new seeds every year.

Hybrid seeds can be stabilized to grow the same variety every time, but the process takes years and patience. Some hybrids have been in our food system for many decades. Hybrid corn goes all the way to Mayan times, and the non-GMO hybrid corn available today was created in the 1930s.

Other common hybrid produce includes carrots, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and squash. Many fruit varieties are also hybrids.

Hybrids are the biggest reason why some people argue that many foods have been genetically modified. That’s incorrect. They have gone through hybridization, which is still a natural process, not done in the lab.

GMOs: The First Lab-Altered Foods

GMOs are most familiar to people as the products of big biotech corporations, most notably Monsanto. Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, Bayer, BASF, and a few smaller companies are also producing these owned and patented organisms.

The very first GMO was created in 1982, for a diabetes medicine. This product approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) then led to permitting many other GM projects, including foods. The first tomato was altered in 1994; RoundUp Ready soybeans were created in 1996; and today, there are GM versions of rice, corn, squash, canola, yeast, alfalfa, cotton, sugar beets, papaya, and salmon.

GMOs are defined as organisms that have been genetically altered in the lab, and often times, these organisms have genetic material from other species inserted into them.

The most bizarre genetic manipulations included inserting a gene from a flounder fish into a tomato. The product from this experiment never made it to the market, but now there are actual GM animals. GM salmon is the first; it entered the food supply in 2017, after being approved by the FDA two years earlier. This salmon is modified with a growth hormone to make it grow faster.

Many health experts and activists have raised concerns about the lack of information on how GMOs will affect human health in the long term. Some studies link GMOs to increased risk of disease. These risks have led some countries to ban GM foods.

Meanwhile, U.S. biotech companies continue to develop and sell these products. The companies that produce GM foods have lobbied against mandatory labeling that would let consumers know when they are eating these modified organisms.

American consumers today are left to figure out which foods contain GMOs and to make educated choices. There are many hidden GMOs in processed foods, particularly in foods that contain corn, soy, and canola. Ingredients from these GMOs include corn flour, corn masa, corn meal, corn oil, corn sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, soy flour, soy isolates, soy lecithin, soy milk, soy oil, soy protein, soy protein isolate, and soy sauce.

Other ingredients can be less obvious. These common GMOs are also found in baking powder, citric acid, condensed milk, glucose, glycerin, lecithin, maltodextrin, protein isolate, starch, sugar, vegetable fat, and vitamins B12 and E.

The one way to know for sure you are buying a non-GM food or product is to buy certified organic and look for the non-GMO label.

Gene Editing

Gene editing technology is the cutting edge of altering natural biology, with CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing.

In the future, this technology could be used to slice human DNA like a pair of scissors and choose to alter the genome in absolutely any way. The potential there, some scientists say, is to find answers to treating incurable diseases.

The danger in this technology is that any minor error in the genetic code can have unpredictable results. The second concern is that this technology can be accessed by anyone.

CRISPR has been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) earlier this year to be used in food products. The first foods that received the green light included white-button mushrooms and an oilseed crop.

The USDA said that as long as the gene is manipulated in the same way nature can, the CRISPR food will not be regulated. This is a stark difference from animals edited with CRISPR that are classified as “animal drugs.”

CRISPR cannot introduce DNA from one species into another, but it is still questionable what hidden effects it has on food and animals that it genetically edits.

This newest technology is hotly debated among the health groups, but companies out to make money will patent and sell it to consumers while the debate continues. Both Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer already have their hands on it. Another food company exploring CRISPR is Mars.

When it comes to CRISPR food, the consumers will once again be left in the dark, as it will not be labeled.

Conclusion

To say that most foods are not what they used to be is correct. Most food crops have developed through human intervention. But to say that all have gone through genetic engineering is false.

By definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, genetic engineering is “the group of applied techniques of genetics and biotechnology used to cut up and join together genetic material and especially DNA from one or more species of organism and to introduce the result into an organism in order to change one or more of its characteristics.”

Foods that were enhanced by creating heirlooms or hybridization are not cut up and manipulated in the lab. They do not contain foreign DNA from very different species.

GMOs created by Monsanto and other biotech companies, on the other hand, could not exist without a laboratory. The true results of these DNA manipulations are still hard to fully grasp. But with studies already linking them to adverse health effects, we can say that natural foods likely will always be safer. In the case of the heirloom varieties, we can also say they are tastier, giving two good reasons to always choose organic foods and produce.

Yelena Sukhoterina graduated with a journalism degree from Wayne State University. This article was originally published in Organic Lifestyle Magazine.