GMO vs. Non GMO Tomatoes, fully explained

heirloom tomatoes

by Erin Marissa Russell

Put simply, there are no GMO tomatoes or GMO tomato seeds out there, so there’s no need to worry about avoiding GMO tomatoes. Tomato seeds may be either hybrid or heirloom, and we’ll discuss exactly what those terms mean.

The rumor that there are GMO tomatoes on the market may have gotten started with a 2016 advertising campaign from Hunt’s. The commercial announced, “You won’t find a single genetically modified tomato among our vines.” While this is true, it implies that there are genetically modified tomatoes out there to be avoided, which there are not. Genetically modified tomatoes do not currently exist on the market so there is no danger of getting them if you are trying to avoid them, and no chance of getting them if you want one.

What Does GMO Mean?

There’s no regulation governing how the term GMO is used. When plants or animals are selectively bred to promote certain qualities, their genes are being modified. However, most of the time when people use the term GMO, they are referring to the genes being modified in a laboratory. 

According to Forbes, “Even though the term has little meaning, ‘GMO’ has come to denote modern molecular genetic engineering methods used to achieve specific, targeted traits, from insect and disease resistant crops to apples that don’t turn brown.” By these standards, there are no genetically modified tomatoes or tomato seeds on the market. Instead, you can choose between heirloom and hybrid tomatoes and tomato seeds.

Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes and tomato seeds are grown using open pollination, which means they’re naturally pollinated by bats, bees, birds, moths, rain, and wind. Heirloom varieties must be at least 40 years old to qualify as an heirloom. 

During these years, traits the breeders find desirable are slowly developed. Heirloom plants are more likely to be resistant to disease and pests, especially if you can find a variety that was developed in your region. 

You can find heirloom tomato seeds at local seed exchanges as well as at the garden center or nursery. We recommend trying the local seed exchanges first, as you’ll be more likely to find heirlooms developed in your area. You’ll get the best results from growing local heirloom tomatoes. 

Heirloom tomato seeds are also often organic even when it does not say so on the package. It can cost a lot of time and money to go through the USDA certification to use the term “organic.”

Heirloom tomato seeds are never GMOs, and they are also never hybrids. The plants are often hardier than non heirlooms, and the tomatoes tend to taste better.

Hybrid Tomatoes

Some gardeners worry that hybrid tomatoes are GMOs, and this belief may have arisen because some hybrid tomatoes are created in a laboratory. However, hybrid tomatoes are made by manually cross pollinating plants. 

When heirloom tomatoes produce seeds, the gardeners who plant them can do so with confidence in how the plants will grow. This is because heirloom seeds will produce plants with the same traits as the parent plant. 

Gardeners don’t have this assurance with hybrid tomato plants or seeds. Because hybrid seeds do not produce true copies, you can’t save them from season to season and expect to get plants that are the same from year to year. To put it bluntly, hybrids are safe to grow and you can plant them successfully for one year, but they cannot be depended on in subsequent seasons because they do not produce true copies. 

You may have seen hybrid tomatoes described as F1, F2, F3, and so on. This notation references how many generations away from the original parent plants the tomato plants or seeds are. F1 seeds are the first generation after the parent plants, while F2 is two generations away, and so on. The farther away from the parent plants a hybrid variety is, the more consistent and stable the plants will be and the less likely it is they will revert to the qualities of one of the parents. The farther away from the original parents a variety is, the closer it is to becoming an heirloom.

Now you understand that there are no GMO tomatoes or tomato seeds on the market to be avoided. But that’s not all. We’ve looked at exactly what GMO means. We also discussed the categories tomato plants and seeds fit into: heirloom and hybrid. Now you’re ready to shop with confidence for tomato plants and seeds.

Learn More About GMO crops and technology

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