Understanding GMO vs. Hybrid vs. Heirloom Plants

You have probably seen the terms “Non-GMO”, “Hybrid” and “Heirloom” to describe plants and vegetables such as tomatoes. It can get pretty confusing, especially considering the factors such as nutrition and cost. Let’s break it all down for you.


“GMO” stands for “genetically modified organism” and is a result of genetic engineering. A plant’s DNA is altered in a way that cannot occur naturally, and sometimes includes the insertion of genes from other species. And while there is much debate on the benefits and risks, most of what we eat from the grocery store comes from GMOs.

There are many Non-GMO advocates that claim genetically engineered foods have not been shown to be safe to eat and may have unpredictable consequences. Some scientists worry that GMO foods, once consumed, may pass on their mutant genes to bacterium in the digestive system. How these new strains of bacteria may affect our body systems’ balance is unknown which can be cause for concern.

What we do know is that GMOs require massive amounts of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. And the negative impact of these chemicals is clear.

All things considered, there is a reason more countries are banning the use of GMO seeds. There are also large franchise chains that are moving in this direction as public awareness and demand increase.


When a plant breeder intentionally cross-pollinates two different types of a plant, so that the offspring boats the best traits of each parent, you get a hybrid. Cross-pollination is a natural process that can happen all the time when the conditions are right. No genetic engineering required. Doing this intentionally however, requires many years of careful planning and control.

Great examples of hybrids are the Juliet, a Roma-style grape tomato that was the 1999 All-America Selections winner. Another is a sweet yellow cherry tomato called Sun Gold.

Other benefits of hybrids, other than improved flavour, can be inheriting traits such as less required care, disease resistance, faster maturity, bigger yields and plant size. Again, none of this requires genetic modification, or introducing “mutant” genes.


Heirloom plants are just like the name implies. They are plants that come from seeds passed down for generations and are hand selected by farmers for a special trait. These traits remain stable every year. Not only has there been no genetic modification or cross-pollination, the way heirloom plants are cared for matters. For example, heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated. This means they are pollinated by insects or wind. No human intervention required. This also means there can be a “mixed bag” harvest because natural growth is unpredictable. This is a reason why many farmers prefer the uniform appearance, timing and yield of hybrid plants.

Many farmers believe that heirloom produce, especially tomatoes, are greater in flavor than hybrids. And many discerning customers would agree. Taste is subjective. We suggest trying it for yourself.

So hybrid or heirloom? Which one is better?

This can become quite the interesting debate for sure. And there is nothing wrong with being passionate about the type of food you eat. We already know the concerns with GMOs, but what about hybrid vs. heirloom?

Our answer is both! As long as they are non-GMO and you are supporting local sustainable food, why not take advantage of the best of both worlds?

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