There’s been a lot of talk lately about the potential dangers of introducing hybrid corn seed in Timor-Leste. But is hybrid corn really all that bad?

Seeds of Life doesn’t use it, instead we prefer open-pollinated corn varieties, but we thought we’d talk to some of our experts and provide you with a brief primer on the two types, their strengths, weaknesses, what works best in Timor-Leste, and why.

Hybrid Corn Seed

So to start us off, just what is a hybrid?

‚ÄúAt it‚Äôs simplest a hybrid is a plant or animal whose mother and father are genetically different from each other,‚ÄĚ Explained SoL‚Äôs Research Advisor, Rob Williams.

‚ÄúIn the animal world, for example, a liger is the resulting offspring of a male lion and female tigress.‚ÄĚ

In agriculture, the offspring of two different plant parent lines is referred to as an F1 hybrid, which is the most common hybrid seed. The ‚ÄúF‚ÄĚ stands for filial, so this is the first filial generation of the cross-mating process.

Fundamental to the popularity of hybrids is the phenomenon known as ‚Äėhybrid vigour‚Äô, whereby the crossing of two different parent plants results in greatly increased yields.

‚ÄúHybrid seed has many advantages for farmers,‚ÄĚ Williams said. ‚ÄúOften the best hybrid variety will produce 20-40 per cent more than the best non-hybrid varieties.‚ÄĚ

Another advantage of hybrid seed is that when two parent lines cross, the F1 will have characteristics, such as disease resistance, of both the male and female parent.

However, there is a downside to hybrid corn seed that makes it unsuitable for SoL’s aims. Farmers of hybrid corn can’t keep their seed from the first generation to the next.

‚ÄúThe genes get mixed up during reproduction, some plants will be more like the grandmother plant, and some more like the grandfather plant. As a result the F2 population won‚Äôt ‚Äėbreed true‚Äô and won‚Äôt be uniform.‚ÄĚ Williams said.

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Farmers using improved varieties can re-plant seed every year

‚ÄúWe only test varieties that farmers can keep the seed of and grow each year. This means we do not test or promote hybrids.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúSoL aims to assist subsistence farmers. Generally, these farmers don‚Äôt buy their seed each year so we only test varieties that farmers can keep the seed of and grow each year. This means we do not test or promote hybrids.‚ÄĚ

Rather, SoL uses improved varieties. These are seed varieties selected from thousands of open-pollinated options.

Open-pollinated seed

Open-pollinated plants don’t have the benefits of crossing parent lines. However, they do have the advantage of stabilized characteristics.

This means that from one generation to the next open-pollinated corn will be more or less consistent, though not as uniform as a plot of F1 hybrids.

‚ÄúOpen-pollinated varieties are a population of plants where each plant is different. When the population reproduces, the next generation is the same as the previous one, even though each plant is genetically different‚ÄĚ Williams said.

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like a population of animals. In every generation, each individual is different from the next, but the characteristics of the population remain the same.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like a population of animals. In every generation, each individual is different from the next, but the characteristics of the population remain the same.‚ÄĚ

Genetic mutations can cause open-pollinated offspring to be different to their parents, but these ‚Äúrogues‚ÄĚ are uncommon, and are often removed from fields.

What works best

Hybridisation is a useful process that benefits corn farmers worldwide, but for SoL’s aims it’s simply not an option.

The majority of farmers in Timor-Leste are subsistence farmers who rely on being able to replant their seed from generation to generation. We want to ensure that farmers are independent and have this seed when they need it most, which is why we will continue to research and introduce open-pollinated corn varieties.

To find out more about more about Seeds of Life or seed varieties visit our website, or send an email to info@seedsoflifetimor.org.