Letter Re: Challenging Conventional Beliefs on Saving Hybrid Seeds

Hello James:
Conventional wisdom holds that one should not plant seeds saved from “hybrid” plants. This wisdom is ironclad boilerplate and generally appears in paragraph 2, sentence 2 of every essay on gardening when it really counts. I want to push back on that idea.

My understanding of agricultural history is that most farmers raised landraces of vegetables and animals prior to the 1600s. A landrace is a swarm of similar-but-not-identical plants or animals. There are very few exceptions, Merino sheep being one of them and asexually reproduced fruit trees being another.

The introduction of “County Fairs” changed that. Suddenly, the emphasis went from feeding and clothing one’s family to having the biggest gooseberry or carrot, the earliest ripening apple or the most artistic sheaf of oats. This coincided with the dawn of the industrial revolution. Fertilizer was barged in from the coasts and suddenly the struggle to supply absolute minimum calorie and protein per-capita requirements lifted.

The County Fair provided a new venue to prove one’s worthiness as an alpha male. “Show” characteristics were selected for to the exclusion of vague, difficult-to-measure attributes like “livability” and vigor. Those characteristics simply did not “show” and win ribbons.

Genetic selection of one characteristic to the exclusion of all others nearly always results in a narrowing of the genetic base. The fastest way to select for one characteristic is some form of in-breeding. That also results in a loss of general vigor.

More than two hundred years of “County Fair” style based breeding and the resulting in-breeding depression created the backdrop for the hybrid revolution. At that time, Agricultural Scientists found that crossing two in-bred lines generally resulted in a 30%-to-40% increase in yield. One perspective of hybrid seed is that it allowed farmers to regain the vigor of the landrace genetic swarm while retaining the extreme uniformity (important for mechanized agriculture) of in-bred cultivars.

Simple facts:
-Most in-bred lines used to produce f1 (first generation) hybrids are edible.
-All of the progeny of those hybrids will be edible.
-Most modern hybrids offer high degrees of disease resistance.
-Many of the progeny of modern hybrids will retain various degrees of that disease resistance.
-There will be a huge increase in plant-to-plant variation in height, ripening season, fruit/grain size in the f2 generation compared to both the hybrid and conventional cultivars.
-It is unlikely that the f2 generation will suffer a 40% loss in productivity compared to the hybrid parent. Two factors come into play. One is a quirk of mathematics. Going from 100bu/a to 150bu/a is a 50% increase but going back from 150bu/a to 100bu/a is a 33% decrease. The second factor is that the basis for the early hybrid comparisons were fairly inbred cultivars. The progeny of f1 hybrids won’t suffer from in-breeding depression.

-In dire circumstances, planting seeds from hybrid tomatoes, corn, squash, etc. will produce far more food than leaving your backyard in Kentucky Bluegrass.
-There will be a large increase in plant-to-plant variation.
-Plant-to-plant variation can be managed by increasing the seeding rate and thinning out the goofy plants.
-This is not heresy. Rather, it is a return to the genetic swarm of the landraces that fed humanity for thousands of years.
-Scientific breeding is the art of breeding the best to the best…and culling the rest. So save the best of your f2 generation for the next year’s seed. Regards, – Joe H.

JWR Replies: You’ve swayed me a bit, but I stand by the assertion that seed saved from hybrids will generally not provide the same potential yield and quality as the parent plants. Hybrids are fine to use in the short term, but in the long term, to be fully prepared you need to have non-hybrid (a.k.a. “open pollinated” or “heirloom”) seed reserves to fall back on. You need to continuously practice saving seed. (It is a skill that takes some time to learn.) Also, be sure to practice isolating plants from unintended cross-fertilization.

Further, keep in mind that the new (and patented) “Terminator Gene” technology will undoubtedly become more widespread in the years to come. Seed saved from those crops will have virtually no useful yield, and even if they did, it would invite lawsuits.