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What’s in a ‘variety’?

July 17, 2018  By Gary Jones

Among its nine definitions of ‘variety’, Dictionary.com1 defines this noun as:

  1. “a kind or sort”
  2. “a category within a species, based on some hereditary difference”
  3. “a type of animal or plant produced by artificial selection”

Meanwhile, ‘Cultivar’ (noun) is given just one definition:

1. “a variety of plant that originated and persisted under cultivation”1


Apparently, the term was first used around 1920-25 and is, as we’re all probably aware from our horticulture classes, a combination of ‘cultivated’ and ‘variety’. So, if these definitions are correct, it begs the question for how long does a variety have to persist in order to become recognized as a cultivar? I assume we can’t yet refer to anything at the California Pack Trials as bona-fide cultivars.

If a variety is characterized as ‘based on some hereditary difference’, and that difference is itself based on being ‘produced by artificial selection’, then we have some other questions to ponder.

A visible variety difference is easy to spot. Flower colour, flower shape, leaf shape/colour and so on. But what about other less recognizable differences such as disease resistance, time to flowering, winter hardiness or content of medicinal/therapeutic organic compounds? Such characteristics may be very difficult to ‘see’, but nonetheless represent genetic differences that may have been deliberately bred for. As such, they’re probably traits that are worth money.

There is also the question of what is meant by ‘artificial selection’. I just hosted a visit by a group of grade 10-12’s. They were students who had been ‘asked to leave’ conventional schools and were enjoying their time as a mixed bunch of kids all trying to graduate high school with a, let’s say, already checkered history. I haven’t met such a fun group of youth for a long while. And respectful to boot. Pure delight. Two of them were familiar with ‘genetically modified organisms’ (GMOs) and had strong opinions on the topic. But I was not clear they knew what the term meant exactly.

According to Health Canada, a GMO “has had some of its heritable traits changed. This can involve:

  • Traditional techniques of crossbreeding
  • Using chemicals or radiation to alter the genetic make-up of the organism’s cells in a process called mutagenesis
  • Applying recombinant DNA or genetic engineering techniques – for instance, introducing a gene from one species into another species”2

In other words, the Canadian government sees conventionally bred plants (Pack Trial varieties for example) as GMOs. But don’t most people assume that GMO is just a synonym for genetically engineered (GE)? And, as we know, many people (consumers) have a thing about ‘Frankenfoods’ (or Franken-plants in general).

The World Health Organization has a different definition. “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”3

It’s all very confusing if intentionally distinct terms are used interchangeably without proper recognition of their meaning. Even by our government. Especially by our government. Perhaps we should not be surprised. Mandatory labelling of GMOs is a hot topic, and one that many multi-national companies would rather not see implemented. Most likely because of the confusion they can enjoy around the terms. In particular with our youth – the purchasers of tomorrow. Multi-nationals have clout, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps there’s a lot more to the term ‘new varieties’ than first meets the eye. In reality though, do the various terms affect how the purchasing public perceive your products, whether correct or not? Is it good (or bad) news for you? I’m always staggered by the number of people who visit the School and are surprised that greenhouse veggies are not ‘genetically engineered’. It’s one reason they often claim that greenhouse tomatoes have no taste compared to ‘old-fashioned ones they had as kids’. But that’s a whole other topic for another day. People often assume many of our veggies are GMO. Maybe statutory labelling of GMO varieties could lead to interesting conversations. Let’s start with government.


Gary Jones is co-chair of Horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langley, BC. He sits on several industry committees and welcomes comments at

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