Food Fight Over a Living Relic of the Past

by Greg Conko on April 21, 2010

in Agriculture, Culture, Environment, Natural Resources, Precaution & Risk, Private Conservation, Zeitgeist

There’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today on a big new food fight over hybrid heirloom tomato varieties.  Some years ago, shoppers fed up with the bland, styrofoam-like taste of the typical supermarket tomato started turning toward farmers’ markets, specialty produce departments, and their own back yards for older, “heirloom” varieties that taste great but generally ripen into muted and mottled colors, and non-uniform size–all characteristics that make them less appealing to retailers who prefer standardization.

There’s one big problem with heirloom tomatoes, however; they typically lack the innate resistances to plant diseases, fungi, and insect and nematode pests that more “modern” varieties enjoy.  That makes heirloom varieties easy prey to the forces of Mother Nature and, in turn, makes the fruit of those plants considerably more expensive.  Now, though, some of the country’s bigger seed companies–including Burpee, Park, and Territorial–are breeding these traits into heirloom varieties.

Despite the high level of demand from seed buyers, a number of gourmands have gotten their panties in a bunch over the mere presence of these improved varieties.  ” “I cringe when I hear the term ‘heirloom hybrid’,” says Amy Goldman, board chairwoman of the Decorah, Iowa-based nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange.”  It seems they object to the fact that heirloom tomatoes have long been “[g]enetically unchanged from one generation to another,” and the introduction of these natural resistances can only be done by breeding new genetic traits into the heirloom varieties.  That is, the superior taste of heirloom varieties isn’t why these folks like them, it’s the idea that they’re eating a living relic from the past.

Some opponents, like Ms. Goldman and her fellow Seed Savers also don’t like hybrids because they don’t breed true–that is, new plants grown from the seeds of a hybrid tomato won’t necessarily be identical to the parent plant.  But, since most commercial and backyard tomato growers buy new tomato seedlings each year anyway, the ability to save seed would seem to be a fairly isolated concern.  After all, it’s a heck a lot more expensive, in terms of the opportunity cost of one’s lost time, to save seed than it is to buy fresh seedlings each year.

But, for those who object to heirloom hybrids on the grounds that they’re not “natural,” I have some news for you.  Heirloom tomatoes aren’t remotely natural either.

wild-tomatoes2

“Natural” tomatoes (i.e. those that grow wild and have never been altered by human hands) look like the little purple and gray berries on the right side of the picture above.  They’re small and hard and full of deadly alkaloid toxins, which stands to reason since tomatoes are in the same taxonomic family as nightshade and tobacco. Oh, and they also express spectacularly vibrant natural resistances to plant diseases, fungi, and insect and nematode pests–you know, those new genetic additions that the opponents of heirloom hybrids object to.

Those resistances were unintentionally bred out of wild tomatoes by early farmers who used crude selection methods to produce good tasting fruits that were safe to eat, but at the cost of significantly lower yields.  During the 20th Century, more sophisticated breeders armed with an understanding of genetics and Mendelian heritability were able to re-introduce those natural tolerances into cultivated tomatoes, but often at the expense of flavor.  Today, however, breeders are now able to give us both the superior taste of the heirloom varieties AND the robustness of modern cultivars–much like the tomato’s wild progenitor but without the deadly toxins.   So, in one very meaningful sense, heirloom hybrids are a lot more “natural” than the plain old heirloom varieties that they’re intended to replace.

That’s capitalism in microcosm:  Early innovations are almost invariably crude and expensive.  The next generation of those products is affordable for the masses, but often lack important refinements and features that earlier artisanal products displayed.  Finally, the pull of market demand and the push of increasingly sophisticated engineering permits the creation of high-quality products with all the bells and whistles, but cheap enough for everyone to enjoy.

One wonders what really is motivating the opponents of heirloom hybrids?  Do they fancy themselves as curators of some kind of backyard gardening museum?  If so, why preserve an intermediate product and not the original?  Maybe they’re really just opposed to capitalism and technology, and this is an easy way to make some sort of symbolic stand?  My guess is that, in their innate snobbery, they fear that the wonders of their precious heirloom varieties will be debased if even the hoi polloi can have them too.

Well, either way, this particular battle doesn’t matter much to me, since I don’t like tomatoes anyway.  But I do love the democratizing quality of modern technology and industrial capitalism.

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