Heirlooms, Hybrids, & GMOs – What’s the difference?

One of the most common questions we get at the store has to do with whether or not what they are planting is a GMO product.

I’m here to answer this question and clarify what all these terms mean so that you understand in a quick, clear, and easily repeatable way!

Let’s take the confusion out of seeds, shall we?


The beautiful colors and flavors of heirloom tomatoes.

Heirloom seeds are seeds that are harvested from plants that are the product of seeds that are collected in succession over time – 50 or more years, actually. They are naturally pollinated (wind, bees, butterflies, etc.), and the seeds are passed from generation to generation, usually in families or communities.

Heirloom seeds gathered from the heirloom plants will create the same exact plant in the next generation.


Hybrid seeds are the result of taking one species (let’s say, a tomato), and pollinating it with the pollen of another species of the same plant family. If the pollination is successful, the resulting seeds will grow a plant that has some of the characteristics of both the parent plants.

The seeds from that hybrid plant (in other words, the 2nd generation), will generate a variety of plants that have the characteristics of the parent and the grandparent plants. While the first generation hybrid will have the same characteristics all the time (these are the hybrid seeds that you buy) the second generation of the hybrids will be almost random (these would be seeds that you collect from the hybrid plants you grew initially).


Genetically-modified Organisms, or GMOs, are LAB CREATED. They are the products of DNA Splicing and techniques of stabilizing DNA so that it is stable through multiple generations. They are patented by the creators and are NOT available for human purchase as seeds.

Since GMOs are patented, no statements about their reproduction in the second generation of seed from the initial GMO can be made – every one is different.

Someone took the time to make this chart, so I shared it (with credit) below. I disagree with some of what is said here (see caption) but the definitions and characteristics are spot-on.

This image is not produced by me, credits appear at the bottom. I disagree with “not proven safe for consumption” statement in the lower right corner in that it is a twisting of words – GMOs have not been proven UNsafe for consumption.
As someone with a scientific background and research experience, until definitive testing is complete I reserve judgement, and choose to avoid GMOs when I can.

Why Should I Care?

Heirloom seeds are being purchased by big agricultural companies to eliminate them from the open market and barter trade. Their motive is profiting from these varieties that have been cultivated for generations by families and communities and dominating the seed market globally. By owning the seed varieties they dictate what is available for people to grow for themselves, and ultimately control what foods are eaten throughout the world.

Hybrid seeds have been cross pollinated and developed by lots of Mendelian research techniques to deliver great disease resistance, fruit types, colors, flavors, and other valuable and desirable characteristics depending on the species. Are hybrids unnatural? No. What they are is an example of expedited evolution – we have forced plants to cross-pollinate where normally they would never meet in a natural environment. It could be argued that even all heirloom seeds were created this way initially.

GMO seeds are usually modified to make the plants resistant to insects, disease, or to broad-spectrum herbicides like Glyphosate which are sprayed on fields to keep competing plants/weeds from growing in between the rows of crops. It is largely limited to large-scale crops such as corn, wheat, sorghum, soy, canola, etc. Genetically-modifying these species has helped raise production of food from limited land areas, but there are questions as to the safety of eating the products of this modified food source.

Currently no studies have conclusively found evidence that people are being harmed by the presence of GMO products in their food, only from the increased presence of processed grains in the foods that are available in the marketplace causing issues linked to overindulgence like obesity, diabetes, and inflammatory diseases. But there are many cellular processes that are as-yet not understood, and we don’t know all of the effects of the interruption of the genetic code of the cells in our agricultural food has or will cause. I really encourage you to do your own research on the topic and make the decision for yourself. Here is a place to start.

I wrote another article on this topic early on in this blog. Here is the link.

I hope you found this quick reference article informative. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.



2 responses to “Heirlooms, Hybrids, & GMOs – What’s the difference?”

  1. Cynthia K Sanchez says:

    I thank you for taking the time to explain the difference between these various classifications of seeds.

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