The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

The unScientific American on heirloom tomatoes

March 31st, 2009

In which the Extreme Gardener’s buttons get pushed…

How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case against Heirloom Tomatoes

The product of archaic breeding strategies, heirloom tomatoes are hardly diverse and are no more “natural” than grocery-store varieties. New studies promise to restore their lost, healthy genes ….by Brendan Borrell

Famous for their taste, color and, well, homeliness, heirloom tomatoes tug at the heartstrings of gardeners and advocates of locally grown foods. The tomato aficionado might conclude that, given the immense varieties—which go by such fanciful names as Aunt Gertie’s Gold and the Green Zebra—heirlooms must have a more diverse and superior set of genes than their grocery store cousins, those run-of-the-mill hybrid varieties such as beefsteak, cherry and plum.

No matter how you slice it, however, their seeming diversity is only skin-deep: heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred—the defective product of breeding experiments that began during the Enlightenment and exploded thanks to enthusiastic backyard gardeners from Victorian England to Depression-era West Virginia. Heirlooms are the tomato equivalent of the pug—that “purebred” dog with the convoluted nose that snorts and hacks when it tries to catch a breath.

read the full article at the Scientific American.

Whose toady are you Borrell?

First of all, clarify your use of the term “heirloom” tomatoes. The statement “heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred…” is about as scientific as saying “Americans are obese.”

Are you trying to say that open pollinated tomato varieties are universally inferior to hybrid and genetically modified varieties?

And, what do you mean by “archaic breeding strategies?” Your pug analogy could be relevant to particular open pollinated or heirloom tomato varieties, but once again, it’s a foolish statement applied to the broad category, as is stating that heirlooms typically bear only 2 fruits per plant. It sounds to me like you are using the Brandywine tomato as a representative of all heirloom tomatoes. That’s not good science.

Open pollinated and heirloom tomatoes have come through the hands of thousands of breeders, who run the gamut from backyard gardeners to those who derive a salary from breeding plants, and the quality of their work is diverse, reflecting diverse needs, goals, abilities and intentions.

I have been involved in growing (and seed saving) open pollinated and heirloom vegetables for 30 years, and this includes tomato varieties of fine culinary quality and excellent plant vigor. I am not a luddite, and I don’t have romantic delusions about heirloom varieties. There are robust heirlooms and yes, there are feeble heirlooms.

It’s a good idea to try to improve disease resistance using some of the more primitive lycopersicon species. However, I do not care to have Monsanto deciding for me what constitutes a better tomato, and I certainly don’t want to have to buy seed from them every season in order to grow tomatoes. We grow all the tomatoes we eat all year, and have very specific needs and preferences that may not be relevant to anyone else. Our varieties are adapted to us and our garden in our little corner of the planet.

The Seminis/Monsanto toadies may, with their manipulations, increase genetic diversity within some tomato plants. What scares me is the lack of diversity of people doing plant breeding. That this activity is becoming increasingly centralized should set off alarm bells for anyone who is concerned about the future of food and who will control access to it.

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8 Responses to “The unScientific American on heirloom tomatoes”

  1. EJ says:

    Just curious- don’t you like Brandywines?

  2. the extreme gardener says:

    We trialed Brandywine last summer. Eating them is nice, but compared to the other varieties we grow, the productivity was really pitiful. Granted, it was a lousy year for tomatoes, but in the same conditions, our Marmandes were as good flavor-wise and put out a lot of tomatoes. Not to say Brandywines wouldn’t do better somewhere else – our growing season is very short…

  3. AnnaMarie says:

    Just found your blog and LOVE IT! I’m trying 99% heirloom varieties this summer and plan to save seeds from the best ones. Can’t wait to peruse more of your blog after I get out of the gardens this afternoon.

  4. the extreme gardener says:

    Thanks AnnaMarie and welcome!

  5. gayle says:

    Norma told me I’d like you – and she was right!
    We try to grow heirlooms as much as possible – trying to stay out of the hands of the Monsanto crowd, and trying to keep the gene pool as deep and wide as possible. It scares me how many varieties have vanished out of seed catalogs since I was a kid.
    My quibble with Brandywine was the multiple cores. Loved the taste, but trying to cut them up was enough to make me cry…

  6. the extreme gardener says:

    Welcome Gayle!
    What kind of yields did you get with Brandywine? I’m very curious, since you’re right in the neighborhood!
    If you’re interested, there is a loosely organized group of Seed Savers from VT/NH that so far meets once a year (in late winter), though there has been talk of maybe some tasting and garden tour gatherings and seed saving workshops later in the growing season. I’m hoping to get enough interest in the NEK to get a satellite group going.

  7. gayle says:

    Ooooh!! Let me know. I’m definitely interested. We just started saving seed not too many years ago – still novices. I’d really like to learn more.
    Our yields with Brandywine were good, though we grow our main crop of tomatoes in a hoophouse, so I don’t know how they would have done naked. We like a mix of tomatoes for our canned chopped tomatoes, and I remember cussing the Brandywines good while trying to cut them up. But, man, Best. Tomato. Sandwiches. Ever… One slice covered the whole piece of bread, and the juice dripped off my elbows – the mark of a truly good tomato sandwich, to my mind.

  8. What constitutes a “better” tomato? says:

    […] The Extreme Gardener puts it well: […]

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