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Are those seeds you just bought genetically modified?


I was sitting with a couple friends over the weekend and we got into talking about plants, which naturally led to us talking about the drought we are experiencing and how to plant indigenous and endemic plants. I know that planting seed is difficult with the water restrictions we are currently facing, but our discussion eventually led to us talking about growing our own vegetables.

What scared me is how very few people really know about the genetically modified seed that is being sold on the market at the moment. The definition for genetically modified organisms (GMO) is a genetic material which has been altered using genetic engineering techniques in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination eg: pollination.

Most seeds on the market which can be found at garden centres and most retail shops are F1 hybrids. An F1 hybrid seed is a genetically modified seed that has been mass produced for supply and demand. These seeds are generally more disease resistant; they tend to grow stronger and with more vigour and some varieties are drought resistant. These plants need fewer pesticides and other chemical treatments.

What are you putting in your body? beetroot-seed

Doesn’t that make you wonder what you are actually growing, let alone eating? If a seed has inbuilt pesticides, does that not make you wonder what harmful effect it will have on your body? You have to ask yourself, why are there so many people with cancers and tumours these days?

Another down side of an F1 hybrid (GMO) is that the seeds it produces once it becomes a mature plant are sterile because it’s genetics have been modified. That means you can plant them but they will not grow the following season.

I got the shock of my life when I recently bought sunflowers for my wife. As kids we used to take the seeds out of the flower when they had passed their shelf life and plant them in our garden. These sunflowers had been genetically modified! I could not believe it… There was no seed within the sunflower seed. So this also brings up the question: Who has the monopoly over our seeds and food supply?

As a landscape designer, nature enthusiast and invasive species consultant I was alarmed when doing research on GMO corn and what affect it has on our bee populations. Did you know that most maize being planted these days  is GMO and that it has its own pesticides within it, which means that locusts, bees and other pollen loving insects die when they come into contact with maize.

Now you may be thinking we are done for… Not yet!tomato-seed-and-name-tag

Heirloom seeds have come onto the market, this is a seed that has not been genetically modified and is openly pollinated, therefore characteristics of each particular cultivar is passed on exactly from year to year. The same growth habit, size, colour and flavour is passed from the parent plant of this year to the seedling of next year.

Some heirlooms can be traced back hundreds of years. Now is the time to ask your grandparents if they have any seeds which they have been growing for many years. On my trips to really rural areas, I try find seed that locals have been planting for year after year. These are heirloom seeds. You never know you may become a multi-millionaire selling seeds as old as time.

So how does one know if a seed is an F1 hybrid or a Heirloom? It is not difficult to tell. If it does not say heirloom or non GMO on the pack don’t buy it. I generally buy a product called Franchi Sementi which is imported from Italy other great suppliers are Living Seeds and Sow Delicious.

If you are looking for living examples of heirloom production, the Saxon Hotel in Sandhurst Johannesburg has the most exquisite roof top vegetable garden. If you are in Cape Town, it is best to visit Babylonstoren, their gardens are spectacular.

I hope this advice on seeds encourages you to be more aware of what we are planting and eating. Please let us know if you have any questions by contacting Spargo Landscape Consultants.

Who is Nicholas Spargo?

Nicholas Spargo, owner of Spargo Landscape Consultants.

Nicholas Spargo, owner of Spargo Landscape Consultants.

Nicholas Spargo, owner of Spargo Landscape Consultants, has been in the landscape trade for 12 years as well as being a lecturer at the Lifestyle Garden Design Centre for the past year. He was awarded a Gold for a design at the Lifestyle Garden Design Centre Design Show in 2008, is an Invasive Species Consultant and is affiliated with the South African Green Industries Council.

Landscaping and education are very close to his hear


Review overview
  • Margaret 7th January 2017

    Nicholas, I cannot begin to say how upset I am about some of the comments you are making here. Please check the facts before publishing things that aren’t true.

    You said: “Most seeds on the market which can be found at garden centres and most retail shops are F1 hybrids. An F1 hybrid seed is a genetically modified seed that has been mass produced for supply and demand. ”

    F1 and GMO are not the same thing. They are 2 totally different things.

    A short, easy definition of F1 Hybrid would be: F1 hybrid seeds refers to the selective breeding of a plant by cross pollinating.

    Although the process is used commercially, it is a natural process. It is such a natural process that it happened by itself in my garden last year. Commercially two parent plants from the same family are selected for certain dominant characteristics. The cross ( baby ) between these two are F1. ( Ever heard of Gregor Mendel? I suggest you read about the work he did ) With F1, you only select for certain genes plants have.

    GMO on the other hand is genetic engineering. Something that isn’t in the plants DNA is added. It cannot happen by accident in someones garden. The genes of two totally different species are combined.

    A GMO corn like a Bt corn has a resistance to the corn borer that burrows into the stem of the corn and causing huge losses.The resistance these corn have, comes from a bacterium that was brought in and genetically altered the protein in the corn. This protein is now poisonous to the corn borer. Corn of its own, has no natural resistance to this corn borer. By bringing in this bacterium the corn now has a resistance because it renders the corn poisonous to this specific insect.

    You wrote: “So how does one know if a seed is an F1 hybrid or a Heirloom? It is not difficult to tell. If it does not say heirloom or non GMO on the pack don’t buy it.”

    Because of the mistake you made at the top, writing as if GMO = F1 Hybrid, this answer is also wrong.

    If seeds are F1-hybrid, you will see that on the front of the packet. F1 hybrid does not mean it is bad. If you buy it for the right reasons, you will be happy. The right reasons would be if you are looking for certain good characteristics like disease resistance, higher yield or uniform colour and size.

    But, if you think you can keep seeds at the end of the season and plant them next year, it is not going to work. F1-hybrid seeds are expensive, because labour is expensive. Effort must be put in year after year by companies to breed for the same qualities.

    Many of the commercial seeds that does not say “heirloom”, are neither F1-hybrid, nor GMO. If you look at the names, you will see “Detroit dark red” beetroot, “Texas grano” onions, “California wonder” peppers, “Romanesco” broccoli, to name a few. These are the names of varieties that are very old. The well-known seed companies are not trying to deceive you by selling GMO seeds under these names. The only difference between these seeds and the heirloom seeds, are the characteristics these companies selected for. They select for uniformity in shape, colour and size, disease resistance, improved shelf-life, etc. By doing that, they lost certain other characteristics like flavour, sweetness and more.

    If F1-hybrid seeds are expensive, then GMO seeds are extremely expensive. I know the GMO maize and soybean seeds available to farmers, but none of those seeds are in small quantities available to gardeners.