Hybrid fruits and vegetables are considered the older and less harmful siblings of GMOs. However, hybrid organisms are as old as life itself. They have played a critical part in the evolution process, and will continue to do so whether the human race will be around or not.
Here’s a little background on the natural and man-made hybridization processes that will hopefully put things into perspective.
Hybrid Fruits and Vegetables: Some Background
The terms hybrid fruits or hybrid vegetables are more than enough to scare away consumers who quickly associate them with genetically engineered organisms. Even though they might seem similar at first, they couldn’t be more different.
Are Hybrid Fruits and Vegetables GMOs?
Hybrid fruits are not GMOs in its modern sense. Unlike GMOs, plant hybridization can occur without human intervention.
A GMO fruit, by definition, is the fruit of an organism whose DNA was altered via genetic engineering to make it resistant to drought, pests, or fertilizers and pesticides. Other traits genetic engineers aim toward when creating GMOs are desirable characteristics for sellers and consumers: Nutrition, size, color, or shelf life are the most common ones.
By definition, a hybrid fruit or vegetable is obtained through natural cross-breeding of two breeds within the same species, genera, or family. It has been occurring in nature spontaneously since the beginning of this world, but it can also be controlled by farmers and horticulturists. The resulting plant usually combines desirable traits of both parent plants. Hybridization is considered a conventional breeding technique.
Unlike most consumers think, seedless fruits are obtained through hybridization, and not through genetic engineering. However, this does not mean a seedless fruit cannot be a GMO. After all, hybridizing 2 GMOs or genetically modifying a hybrid still leads to a GMO.
So What Are They, Then?
Hybrid fruits could be considered naturally occurring GMOs if that makes any sense. However, instead of selecting just a few genes of an organism and introducing it into another, their whole genetic material is scrambled together.
In some cases, all the fruits available on the market are modern hybrids, while in others just one or a few varieties are. But this is only true when talking about the modern understanding of plant hybridization – that is, controlled hybridization. If we take a moment to look back at history and evolution, we can conclude that all plants are hybrids.
Fruits that ARE hybrids in the modern sense include:
- Blood limes: red finger limes + Ellendale mandarins.
- Apriums: 25% plums + 75% apricots.
- Pluots: 75% plums + 25% apricots.
- Nectaplums: nectarines + plums.
- Seedless watermelons, grapes, apples, pineapples, citruses, etc.
Contrary to the popular belief, nectarines and pomelos are not hybrids in the modern sense. Nectarines are peaches that have undergone natural mutations and stopped producing the fuzz. Pomelos are natural citruses that grow in South and Southeast Asia.
However, scientists have also proved that a series of other common fruits currently on the market have been hybridized by humans or nature in the past. Apples (including Honeycrisp), lemons, limes & key limes, grapefruits, sour oranges, blood oranges, clementines, mandarins, bananas, avocados, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes, plums, pears, and grapes are hybrid fruits inthe modern sense of the term.
Farming Hybrid Fruits and Vegetables
Farming with hybrid seeds began in the ‘20s in the U.S., and a decade later hybrid maize crops were already widespread all over the country.
No matter their type, hybrids tend to borrow the best traits from their “parents”. The first generation of hybrids always shows higher yields, greater uniformity, disease resistance, and better color in plants and their fruits. However, subsequent generations seldom show the same benefits.
Advantages of Hybrid Fruits and Vegetables for Farmers
- More yield.
- Decreased need for fertilizers and pesticides.
- Drought resistant (for some).
- Generally, more nutrients (not a rule, though).
- Can be classified as organic if they are grown as per USDA’s organic regulations.
Disadvantages of Hybrid Fruits and Vegetables for Farmers
- The need to acquire new seeds each year is the most detrimental aspect of farming with modern hybrid plants.
- Their premium pricing doesn’t help either. There are just a few companies that have monopoly on the hybrid seed market worldwide, although these are sold under many, many different brands. Therefore, they afford to increase the prices without worrying the competition might have lower ones. However, these costs are usually made up by harvesting more produce.
- The stigma that comes with hybrid fruits is another obstacle for farmers. Many consumers believe they are much more similar to GMOs than to organic produce, which is simply not true. Unfortunately, this leads to lower incomes for farmers.
- Overusing hybrid seeds can lead to a decrease in genetic diversity. Since plant geneticists try to create the perfect plant – that is a single organism that can withstand the conditions of different environments – loss of genetic material can be a consequence. This is especially worrying when talking about rare species in isolated habitats, no matter the type of hybridization (spontaneous or human-controlled).
- Although generally foreseeable, the process of hybridization can still have unexpected consequences that slow down or increase the costs of production. These can include different blooming periods, pollinating insects not being attracted to the plant anymore, a decrease in pollen production, or even sterility.
How Can Farmers Create Their Own Hybrid Fruits & Vegetables?
To understand the complexity of this process, we first need to take a look at the different types of hybridization:
- Intraspecific hybridization is performed between 2 self-pollinating individuals from the same species.
- Interspecific hybridization refers to crosses between 2 individuals of different varieties, self-pollinating or cross-pollinating ones.
- Intrageneric hybridization implies crosses between 2 individuals of different species, but within the same genera. The results are most often resistant to diseases and/or extreme environmental conditions.
- Intergeneric hybridization is a cross between 2 individuals of different species but within the same family. It aims to produce resistant fruits and vegetables which also show desirable traits.
The Hybridization Process
The first step in plant hybridization is selecting the parents. Both the male and the female part need to have desirable traits and mature at the same time. During the next step, emasculation, the anthers of bisexual plants are removed before pollen is shed to prevent self-fertilization. This step is skipped for monoecious plants. Then, the pollen of the male flowers is collected and dusted over the pistils of the female flowers. The flowers are then stored until the seeds are ready to be harvested and planted into the ground.
Farming hybrid fruits and vegetables is not really that different than farming regular ones once you have the seeds or trees. A common practice is planting a section of the field with regular seeds so that all the pests are attracted to those since they are easier to attack. However, this is a common practice in traditional farming as well.
Note: The only purpose of the aforementioned information is to accommodate farmers and consumers with the process. These should not be taken as sole guidelines when trying to create hybrid fruits.
Hybrid fruits and vegetables are fundamentally different from GMOs, but they still are a highly debatable subject. However, one thing is clear: it’s impossible to stay away from hybrid foods both as a farmer and as a consumer. Trying so will result in farming wild apples that have been naturally hybridized over the years anyway, and which nobody will buy since they are small and sour.