Borrell writes about the research of Dr. Steven Tanksley at Cornell University, who has traced the genes of heirloom tomatoes, and has concluded that the hundreds of heirloom varieties available to gardeners come from only a handful (as few as ten) mutant genes. Backyard breeders through the years focused on traits like interesting color, shape, and taste, and, in doing so, inadvertently bred out disease-resisting genes. Which is why, geneticists claim, heirloom tomatoes suffer from more fungal diseases and have lower yields than modern hybrid varieties, as well as their ancestor, which grew wild in the Peruvian Andes before being domesticated. Scientists also believe that the celebrated robust flavor of heirlooms has nothing to do with being "heirloom," per se, and more to do with the fact that the plants produce fewer fruit and we tend to eat heirlooms when they are at the peak of flavor, just-ripe off the vine.
One geneticist, a student of Tanskley, is currently working on hybridizing modern heirloom-type tomatoes, tomatoes that have great flavor and interesting physical characteristics, but also have the disease resistance and high yields of modern hybrids. He is doing this hybridizing for Seminis, a subsidiary of Monsanto---a name that is synonymous with industrial agriculture.
And here's where I have a big problem with this whole thing. Part of what makes so many of us fanatical about heirlooms is the fact that we can collect our own seeds, and that they are from plants that have been grown from the same seed, handed down from gardener to gardener for generations. You can't save hybrid seed and grow plants from it year after year. The seed will not come true, and you end up with a plant that is often nothing like the one you saved seed from, if it germinates at all. To me, this is just one more way Big Ag is trying to take control of our food supply; convince us to set aside heirlooms in favor of these....imitation heirlooms.
And what about the idea that heirlooms are weak, disease-prone, low yielding accidents? I can tell you: I love science. Science is our friend. But after growing heirloom tomatoes in my own garden for the last fifteen years, no one can tell me that they are inferior in any way to modern hybrids. Any disease issues that come up are more often the result of poor soil health and unsanitary garden conditions than anything else. As for the flavor----well, if you've tasted a Brandywine tomato, fully ripe and juicy and warm from the sun, I don't need to convince you that the flavor can't be beat. I'll be sticking with my heirlooms, thank you very much!
What do you think? Is our love of heirlooms just sentimental, or are they truly as good or better than modern hybrids?
Thank you to About Trees and Shrubs guide Vanessa Richins for drawing my attention to this fascinating article. You can read the full text at the Scientific American website.