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The New York Times on Heirlooms, Open-pollinated and Hybrid Seeds

By Lawrence Davis-Hollander 


Tags: Heirloom vegetables, heirloom tomatoes, open-pollinated seeds, hybrid seeds, New York Times, Heirloom Seeds or Flinty Hybrids, , Lawrence Davis-Hollander,

A photo of Lawrence Davis-HollanderThe New York Times March 24 article on seeds ("Heirloom Seeds of Flinty Hybrids?" appeared to me to be vaguely objective,  yet it was perhaps preloaded with some non-objective aims and means. Ultimately the article leaves you hanging with no real conclusion with bits and pieces of objectivity, lots of  positional viewpoints including [apparently?] the author’s. Which made for an interesting and somewhat informative article which was very incomplete.  If you are in to gardening it's worth a read and has some good info. Yet it left me dissatisifed.

It was incomplete because it was reductionistic. In other words it took somewhat complex issues  and reduced them to a few, sometimes personal explanations by the interviewees without sufficiently going into some important topics that could really lead to understanding. I for one would have liked to have seen more of that. Or it may reflect the material the author chose to utilize.

I agree positions can be fun and shake things up a bit. I was trained as a scientist from a holistic systems approach to try to understand what is occurring from a wider perspective. Perhaps this is another form of pseudo-objectivism yet very much grounded in multiple viewpoints and approaches. In my other life’s work I try when possible to seek balance, common ground, and viable solutions. For this blog I’m just going to begin by drilling down on  one  point If  and when time permits me I’ll address some other questions raised in the NYT article in another blog.

The article quotes Bob Heisey a tomato-and-pepper breeder for the United Genetics Seeds who puts the responsibility on the consumer for wanting to buy out of season produce.  I don’t know Bob and I suspect we’d have fun chatting.

So here’s my question. Is it the chicken or the egg that comes first? I’ve always wanted to know how this works when it comes to consumerism. As a nation we often hear some new product or gadget is now required because of consumer demand. The story is usually the same. We accept that we need this item and rush out and buy it. As time goes along we need more and more items, companies create more and more items and the consumer economy grows. This trend just keeps expanding along with its consumerist mentality.  Today I believe it truly may be the consumer making these demands because many of  us have become successfully rooted (or mired) in the instant gratification driven and distracted material culture.

Okay let’s move to tomatoes as an example. Was there really a movement that said we want tomatoes out of season? Was there a movement  called the tough-skin-out-of season-crappy-tasting movement or perhaps did it work the other way around?  I often hear big business claiming they have make something that the consumer wants. Could it be that they are doing what they want and are then using advertising to convince us it is what we need? Could it really work that way at least some of the time? Could innovations like the national highway system helped create the infrastructure for moving produce across the country? Could the ability to produce larger crops with more uniform hybrids and  mechanized means of production created the impetus for selling out of season to national markets? 

These are just a couple of examples where the story is likely  quite bit more complex. In most situations we can be aware that when one or two causes explains the situation, behind is often hiding more complexity. Reductionist thinking and explanation hurts us, hides the truth, and can make it much more difficult to build common ground.

Americans seemed perfectly happy for a hundred years eating tomatoes that were more  or less in season or canned. Tomatoes were shipped to markets for great distances in trains in the late 19th century and apparently did quite well.  We used to “test drive” heirloom tomatoes around in a truck for a few days and then send them chefs in  Boston and they arrived in perfect condition. I know farmers in California who ship heirloom tomatoes to the upper Midwest. Apparently for shipping you don’t need modern hybrid tough skinned tomatoes.  Most of us are familiar with the stories of how a couple of oranges in the stocking at Christmas was a huge treat. Today access to citrus is ordinary. Yes it’s what we are used to and now we expect it.

So I’m not sure we can take a singular position and say it is consumer demand which drove us away from regional and local heirloom tomatoes. Maybe the big rage over heirloom tomatoes is really about taste, not  simply fanatical “Luddite fundamentalists.”  It’s also possible if the industry had produced tasty tomatoes all along heirloom tomatoes would not have caught on. They didn’t disappear because they were no good.  Part of the explanation is they were simply replaced with new varieties by seed catalogs and seed producers.  Did people stop buying them or were the opportunities to obtain them diminish?  Why did seed banks and people keep all these old varieties going?  I would suggest it is because people saw value in them.

 Now that heirlooms have cache some people who are not afficionados of them appear to be complaining.  I remember some farmers being vitriolic in conversations with me about organic farming; they said it was a bunch of nonsense, fanatical back-to-the land-hippies. (haven’t seen too many hippies run a successful farm operation). 

There are democratic movements in the Mideast because people are sick of what they have been given. Lots of Americans were getting sick of mediocre tasting tomatoes that  were the only varieties they could locate in season and out. 

My point is there are many great heirloom tomatoes available. (we won’t go in to other crops now) And there are some which are which are interesting historic artifacts and not much more. There are some which will do well in your backyard and do terribly in mine. Yes if we only depended on 18th century wheats to feed us we’d be producing a hell of a lot less food today, no doubt about it. (most aren’t disease resistant) Some hybrid tomatoes are great, some are not. Some picked truly vine ripened are pretty good. Some only look good.

Disease resistance in modern hybrids can be very important factors for growing them. The fact is most heirloom tomato varieties have a very “narrow” set of genes making the whole group disease susceptible.

Yet if you look carefully at descriptions of many hybrid garden varieties of vegetables they indicate disease resistance, not immunity. Field performance depends on a whole range of other factors.  I’m not familiar with all current breeding work being done on tomatoes and I’m sure if some new additional genes from wild plants get incorporated there are new possibilities for better resistant tomatoes. I can tell you this; in 2009 no tomatoes were resistant to the blight that moved through the northeast due to excessive and constant moist conditions. According to the Times article breeders are working on this. Excellent. Hopefully they’ll produce some open pollinated varieties and people can save their own seed. For five years I watched both heirlooms and hybrids in  the same field. As a generalization ( I generalize because there 80 heirlooms and 6 hybrids) I can state that overall I saw no difference in their resistance to diseases. In some cases the heirlooms were somewhat less resistant and in other cases heirloom varieties outlasted the hybrids.

Let us accept the diversity of our food heritage, various approaches and use all the sound ecologic methods that promote a sustainable food system with nutritious, tasty results and leave simplistic, reductionist and positional floundering to our politicians.


Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening ArtsHe's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on .

nebraska dave
3/26/2011 2:11:34 PM

Lawrence, I for one will not buy or eat one of those tough-skin-out-of season-crappy-tasting tomatoes. Certain things were always anticipated when the season would arrive. The first batch of asparagus or rhubarb. It was wonderful to eat that first hand full of raspberries or foliage for the wild mulberries and blackberries. The first bowel of strawberries alway made me excited. Oh man don't get me started on the overgrown bloated steroidal strawberries that don't smell or taste like a strawberry should. All that anticipation for the next seasonal thing has truly been lost as well as the demand for traditional taste of how food should taste. The younger generation now, unfortunately, think that the tough-skin-out-of season-crappy-tasting tomatoes are really what tomatoes are supposed to taste like. My mission in life is to grow great heirloom (mostly Rutgers) tomatoes and give them away to folks so they can taste a real tomato. I'm a firm believer that if the soil is taken care of and the plants are healthy, disease will not be a problem. Of course there are always bad years but that's just how nature is. I'm also a firm believer that a tomato is supposed to have blemish or two and it doesn't have to be perfectly round. Oh, well, I guess you can just call me old fashion. Have a great ethnobotanist day and keep up the good fight for better tasting food.