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Seed Terms Defined

This blog post was written by Anna Greene, one of our amazing volunteers. The post covers the basics of some of the seed and agriculture terms being used in this year’s Spring Seed Campaign.

Starting from the broader terms that encompass Groundswell’s work, and moving down to the more specific, learning these terms will help you become well-versed in seed lingo!


The term “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered” is probably the most well known, but controversial term on our list. At Groundswell, we believe that this type of seed (often referred to as GM or GMOs) is harmful for long-term sustainable development. Essentially, GMOs are plants or animals created through gene splicing techniques using biotechnology and high tech laboratory techniques (also called genetic engineering or GE). This experimental technology merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. Virtually all commercial GMOs are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide. Despite biotech industry promises, the jury is still out as to whether the GMO traits currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit. Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights (NON GMO Project).

The seed packets being delivered through Groundswell’s Spring Seed Campaign are not only GMO-free, but are also open-pollinated. Open-Pollinated seed refers to a non-hybrid, non-GMO seed that has not been treated with any type of fungicides or pesticides. “When properly saved and replanted, open-pollinated varieties will reproduce ‘true’ to the characteristics of the parent plants, linking growers to a sustainable and sovereign food system.” (Sow True Seed)

What other terms are useful to know for Groundswell and our Spring Seed Campaign?

Agroecology is one of many terms people use to describe an approach to farming – others being sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, low-external input agriculture or people-centered agriculture.  Agroecology can be defined as farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.”  It applies ecology to the design of farming systems; uses a whole-systems approach to farming and food systems; and links ecology, culture, economics and society to create healthy environments, food production and communities. 

Biodiversity includes the components of biological diversity that are essential for feeding human populations and improving the quality of life. Biodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of ecosystems, animals, plants and micro-organisms that exist at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels, and which are necessary to sustain human life as well as the key functions of ecosystems. This diversity is the result of thousands of years of farmers’ and breeders’ activities, land and forest utilization, and fisheries and aquaculture activities combined with millions of years of natural selection (FAO).

Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. Organic agriculture relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and natural cycles and is adapted to local conditions, rather than using inputs that can result in adverse environmental effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment, promote fair relationships, and ensure a good quality of life for all involved.

Hybrid seeds refer to a plant variety developed through a specific, controlled cross of two parent plants. Usually, the parents are naturally compatible varieties within the same species. This hybridization, or the crossing of compatible varieties, happens naturally in the wild; plant breeders basically just steer the process to control the outcome. (Mother Earth News).

Heirloom and Heritage Seeds are defined as open-pollinated varieties that were in circulation before WWII, prior to the commercial introduction of F1 hybrids and the changes in industrial agriculture that favored them. Many heirlooms are much older and have been passed down by families and traditional cultures for generations (Sow True Seed).

Seed Banks or Community-Managed Seed Banks are networks for seed saving and exchange. Seeds are collected, saved, grown out, multiplied, selected, distributed through the network and the cycle is continually repeated. In Haiti, community-managed seed banks lend seeds to farmers at the beginning of the rainy season, and then farmers pay interest in seeds so that other farmers have the same access. Seed banks are also called Seed Libraries, where you can borrow seed like you borrow a book, and return on reading (growing and multiplying). (Seed Freedom). 

Want to know more? Let us know in the comments below or post via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram If you haven’t signed up yet to receive your healthy, GMO-free seed packets from Groundswell, click here


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