Most of us have heard of the term “hybrid seed”. Most of us don't really know what it means, except that it is vaguely connected with something “bad” that multinational fertilizer and seed companies are doing. Since that is not quite correct, I would like to summarize in a few sentences what this term actually means.
A hybrid seed is a seed that is the result of crossing (you know, the flowers and bees business. More commonly known as sex). Nature has this fantastic mechanism of “picking” the best traits of both parents for the offspring. So for example, if you have a corn plant with short and fat cobs (Danny Devito) and cross it with one that is thin and long (Heidi Klum), their offspring end up being fat and long. In the case of corncobs, that is obviously great. In the case of the real Danny Devito and Heidi Klum having kids, I don't imagine the result to be all that pretty. I imagine something resembling Rosanne.
Lets get into the genetic of this in a very simplified way for a minute. Offspring, in this case the Heidi Devito corncob, always carry one gene from the mother and one from the father for every one of its traits. So for the trait “girth” (thin or fat), the offspring carries Heidi’s thinness and Danny’s chubbiness. (We are going to have to assume that both Danny’s parents were fat and both Heidi’s parents were thin. I will explain later) Since in nature bigger is generally better, the offspring will „choose“ Danny’s chubby gene and ignore Heidi’s thinness gene (Danny’s “width” gene is dominant, Heidi’s gene is recessive). The same goes for the “height” gene, except this time the offspring corncob “chooses” Heidi’s tallness gene and ignores Danny’s shortness gene.
So the Heidi Devito corn carries within it the genes for thinness and fatness, snorthness and tallness (genotype), but it only shows its favorable characteristics, fatness and tallness (phenotype).
So when the farmer buys and plants those hybrid seeds, he ends up with a lush field of fat and tall Heidi Devito corn.
The crux in this story is that this field of Heidi Devito corn will now start to mate amongst each other. And the gene, which is passed on to the offspring from the parent for each trait, is selected at random. So when two Heidi Devitos corn plants make a baby, the baby has a 50% chance of receiving either the chubby gene or the thinness gene from the parent. Baby Heidi Devito could carry the chubby gene from both parents. In that case everything would be great. Baby Heidi Devito would become chubby like its parents. That's what the farmer wants. It could also happen that Baby Heidi Devito receives a chubby gene from one parent and a thinness gene from the other parent. In that case, as I mentioned earlier, nature is so smart that it Baby Heidi Devito will express the gene, which is the most favorable, in this case chubbiness. But it could also happen that Baby Heidi Devito carries the thinness gene from both parents. Then Baby Heidi Devito has no choice but to become thin. And then the farmer is very unhappy. He would like all his corn to be nice and chubby.
The science of crossing seeds is more than 150 years old. And the first hybrid seeds were made in the 1930s. Before that farmers always had fields of corn that were a mixture of fat, thin, tall, short, etc. No uniformity.
But since the farmer would be happy to have fat and tall corn 100% of the time, he buys hybrid seeds. In a way, the farmer has become dependent on the seed manufacturer. He cannot produce seeds any more that can produce the “required” yields. This does not have to be bad. It could be a fruitful partnership. The farmer pays a fair price for the hybrid seeds and in return he has much higher yields than he used to have.
It does become problematic however, when farmers in India buy hybrid seeds at inflated prices and then due to some drought or natural disaster their crop fails. In that case, they no longer have the money to buy the seeds and have to go into debt. This situation can quickly spiral out of control. The farmer becomes indebted to the point that he has no chance of repaying. The human tragedy behind this is almost unimaginable. Tens of thousands of farmers in India and elsewhere have committed suicide in the past decade as a result.
Hybrid seeds in the hands of money hungry corporations can be a tool for control, extraction and oppression. And sadly, all too often that is the reality.