What constitutes a “better” tomato?

by Jeremy Cherfas on April 3, 2009

Two recent blog posts sandwich a very unappetising slice of nonsense at Scientific American, and goad Jeremy into action.

Amy Goldman’s slideshow of heirloom tomatoes, hosted at Scientific American, prompted a little reverie for me. Unfortunately another linked Scientific American article by Brendan Borrell — How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case against Heirloom Tomatoes — brought me back to reality with a start. It wasn’t easy to determine exactly what the article was about. It seemed to be be saying that all heirloom tomatoes are pretty much useless; toothsome yes, but disease-prone, weak, wimpy, and generally pretty useless. And gardeners who like and grow them are deluding themselves.

On the contrary, I find Borrell’s arguments to be weak, wimpy and generally useless.

Why describe heirlooms as having “fanciful” names? Aren’t Santa and Sungold pretty fanciful? Or are we supposed to feel that Aunt Gertie’s Gold and Green Zebra are quaint and old-fashioned and therefore ripe for discarding as we thrust forward into the bright new future? Funnily enough, Borrell doesn’t actually name any non-heirloom varieties. He restricts himself to identifying “run-of-the-mill hybrid varieties such as beefsteak, cherry and plum”.Those are not names, they are categories. New Girl is a name. Lemon Boy is a name. Viva Italia is a name. Not at all fanciful?

Describing heirloom names as “fanciful” is really a rather minor pecadillo compared to other points in Borrell’s article, but it does indicate where he’s coming from.1 He is determined to paint open-pollinated varieties in the worst possible light, in order then to blow a big fanfare for a spiffy new tomato that is the outcome of a “pet project” by breeder Doug Heath at Seminis Vegetable Seeds, a subsidiary of Monsanto.

The “new rainbow-streaked tomato [is] less prone to cracking and also endowed with 12 disease-resistant genes”. I expect it will find a ready market among commercial growers. Perhaps in addition to the 12 resistance genes it also has the sturdiness that industrial operations require. And those operations will be able to jump aboard the heirloom bandwagon and fool some of the people some of the time.

But why is it necessary to dump on heirlooms and backgarden varieties to make the point that Monsanto has bred what may be an interesting tomato? And why did Heath’s efforts to breed his tomato have to be a “pet project”? Sounds to me like Monsanto wasn’t initially all that interested in it as a commercial concern, but tolerated Heath’s efforts. And then, when there seemed to be an opportunity to ape heirlooms, in they stepped, encouraged no doubt by the fact that because the new heirloom is a hybrid rather than open pollinated, their investment in Heath’s pet project could be protected. And gushing, uncritical writers could be relied upon to puff their product.

Good luck to Monsanto, and let the buyer of pseudo-heirlooms beware. There need be no inherent conflict between F1 hybrids and open pollinated varieties, and many enthusiastic farmers and gardeners find no substitute for some F1s, such as Sungold. Borrell asks, “But will heirloom adherents appreciate the look-alikes with hybrid seeds?” He almost answers his own question with a final quote from breeder Doug Heath: “There will be a contingent of people who will believe these are poor imitations of the originals.” That, like Borrell’s entire article, misses the point.

The Extreme Gardener puts it well:

“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.”

But it ought not to be a question of either or, at least not in countries where trade in seeds is reasonably free. The needs of gardeners and small farmers are different from those of industrial agriculture, and the two sectors ought to be able to coexist side by side. There isn’t much commercial interest in meeting the needs of small farmers and gardeners, but that may change.

The day before Scientific American published its article on Monsanto’s pseudo-heirloom, Gary at Muck and Mystery happened to resurrect a discussion of approaches to breeding. He raised (from the dead?) the notion of apomixis, once hailed as the saviour of developing country poor farmers. Apomictic plants produce viable seeds without crossing. The seeds are effectively clones. That means farmers can have all the benefits of wonderful traits incorporated into apomictic seeds for them by breeders without paying the penalty associated with hybrid seeds, which require them to obtain fresh seed each season. With apomictic seeds, farmers can simply save a portion of this year’s harvest for next year’s sowing. Breeders concerned with the public good were racing to incorporate apomixis into crops where it had never been. Then everything went quiet.

But hang on. Isn’t this where agriculture started, with farmers saving seed from one harvest to sow for the following season’s? Ah, but that was dumb breeding, characterized by both Gary and Scientific American as the kind of harmful breeding “that has lost many useful characteristics in the pursuit of others”. Smart breeding uses genomic information to make precisely targeted changes to the genome. The fact is, it is the smart breeders who have lost the useful characteristics. They are the ones who have created crop varieties in which every individual is identical to every other individual. And it is that uniformity that makes modern farmers reach for the pesticides and forces breeders to return endlessly to the genepool.

I have absolutely nothing against uniform varieties, honest, so long as we realize that thanks to the adaptability of their enemies and their own enforced stasis, they inevitably contain the seeds of their own downfall. And I don’t see myself as among either the “emo activists longing for a mythical past (with iPods)” or the “singulatarians longing for rapture,” as Gary describes them. But I do agree with him when he forecasts that “it will be the large ag businesses that will make the best use of genomics”.

Interestingly, the Wired article that Gary quotes so favourably, raises two points that he takes for granted, or at least chooses to ignore. One is that the methods of smart breeding will be “unpatentable”. Maybe so, but I am willing to bet that large ag businesses will find ways to protect their investment. The other point is that “nearly every crop in the world has a corresponding gene bank consisting of the seeds of thousands of wild and domesticated relatives”. Right. And who supports the genebanks? Not, so far, the large ag businesses that Gary and Wired agree benefit from them.

The suppliers to industrial ag, among them Monsanto, will deliver the products of their smart breeding programmes, particularly if they can exercise the property rights they need to make the R&D investment pay. That’s fine for industrial agriculture. It may also suit some consumers. But lets not fool ourselves. Those varieties will be no good for poor farmers or home gardeners, they won’t feed the world, and they won’t be sustainable.

My point is this: in plant breeding, as in plants, we need diversity. If you can afford to pay for the inputs that genetic divesity supplies for free, then by all means do so. But if you cannot, or don’t want to, if you want to use genetic diversity instead to cope with pests and diseases or climate change or drought or floods, then what? Setting up a false dichotomy between smart breeding and dumb breeding helps nobody. But people do need help, and they won’t be getting it from breeders intent on uniformity.

  1. I could bang on about the others, but it would serve no purpose here. []

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Evil Fruit Lord April 5, 2009 at 4:12 am

One piece of the heirloom tomato vs. industrial tomato discussion that always grates on me is the fact that people discuss it in terms of heirloom = open pollinated = good quality, and modern industrial tomato = F1 = bad quality. The breeding methods really have nothing to do with it. One could absolutely breed an F1 hybrid with great quality, just as one could breed a serviceable industrial tomato that was open pollinated. (There are lots of open pollinated heirloom varieties that are for most practical purposes, garbage–the flavor sucks, the yield sucks, the shelf life sucks. They might have breeding value, but that’s about it). There are reasons why certain methods favor certain objectives, but the differences are not inherent to the breeding approach.

In addition to my standard gripe about all that stuff, there are a couple of disturbing factual issues I have with the SciAm article (I hope Steve Tanksley is being misquoted or quoted out of context, because I generally regard him as some one who knows what he’s talking about):

10 mutant genes account for ALL diversity in heirloom varieties? First of all, that’s some pretty impressive isogenic breeding. Second, how the hell would he know that? The tomato genome isn’t even half sequenced (last I knew), and next to nothing in terms of molecular genetics has been done with 99% of heirloom varieties, and most of the ones that have been studied have hardly been thoroughly studied. There may only be 10 major genes controlling most of that diversity but, we still don’t really have much of a clue of what’s lurking in the genomes of heirloom tomatoes, (though they probably are more closely related than most people guessed). Then he turns around and says that our ancestors ultimately exploited 30 mutations out of the 35,000 genes. Where’d the other 20 come from?

Also: most varieties possess only one disease resistance gene? Which one would that be? So breeders have unintentionally selected for plants which are knock-out mutants of every one of the hundreds of loci governing disease resistance, except for one? I can think of several tomato disease resistance genes off the top of my head, and I’ve never even studied the crop.

Plus: Heirlooms set only two fruits? Huh? Maybe some only set two fruit, but there’s a huge range. I had a plant of Matt’s Wild Cherry that probably set literally hundreds.


Anastasia April 9, 2009 at 2:35 pm

I don’t understand where the Sci Am article was coming from. Why can’t we have both industrial tomatoes AND heirlooms? Some amount of industrial ones are good for things like tomato sauce but I think few people would deny that heirlooms are better on a salad. The both have worthy qualities and significant flaws – but both have important places. I mean, why not write about that?


Jeremy April 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm

I haven’t the faintest idea … on all points.


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