Tasteful breeding

A couple of days ago the Evil Fruit Lord complained — a little bit — about an article in a Ugandan newspaper which extolled the virtues of traditional crops and varieties over new-fangled hybrids. While not doubting the many attractive qualities of landraces and heirloom varieties, he quite rightly pointed out that there’s nothing to stop modern varieties and hybrids tasting just as good:

I get really sick of the tendency to talk about plant breeding as a process which makes crops into finicky, crappy tasting garbage in exchange for yield. You absolutely can create varieties which taste as good (or better) than traditional varieties, produce more, and resist pests. In fact, plant breeding is the only way to get to that.

Now there’s an article by Arthur Allen in Smithsonian magazine which basically says — not very surprisingly, I suppose — that both those things have happened in the tomato:

Flavor … has not been a goal of most breeding programs. While importing traits like disease resistance, smaller locules, firmness and thicker fruit into the tomato genome, breeders undoubtedly removed genes influencing taste. In the past, many leading tomato breeders were indifferent to this fact. Today, things are different. Many farmers, responding to consumer demand, are delving into the tomato’s preindustrial past to find the flavors of yesteryear.

Allen has a good word to say for the wild relatives:

The architect of the modern commercial tomato was Charles Rick, a University of California geneticist. In the early 1940s, Rick, studying the tomato’s 12 chromosomes, made it a model for plant genetics. He also reached back into the fruit’s past, making more than a dozen bioprospecting trips to Latin America to recover living wild relatives. There is scarcely a commercially produced tomato that didn’t benefit from Rick’s discoveries. The gene that makes such tomatoes easily fall off the vine, for instance, came from Solanum cheesmaniae, a species that Rick brought back from the Galapagos Islands. Resistances to worms, wilts and viruses were also found in Rick’s menagerie of wild tomatoes.

And he also plugs genebanks:

…we can take comfort in the tomato’s continuing, explosive diversity: the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a library of 5,000 seed varieties, and heirloom and hybrid seed producers promote thousands more varieties in their catalogs.

Not quite sure where he got that number, as the C.M. Rick Tomato Genetic Resources Center seems to have about 3,500 accessions, but anyway.

4 Replies to “Tasteful breeding”

  1. The simplest solution to this problem: Don’t buy food that tastes like crap.

    Flavor hasn’t been a major goal of most breeding programs because there hasn’t been much of an economic downside to losing it.

    (I’m very proud to be part of a breeding program that has always highly prioritized flavor–it’s an exceedingly rare thing.)

  2. Indeed.

    And for a celebration of taste that still endures, see Amy Goldman’s new book, The Heirloom Tomato, with its detailed descriptions (including tasting notes) and histories of some 200 varieties. Great photos too. You can find the book on Amazon.com

  3. Be warned, heirloom tomato growers in search of taste, that there exists what breeders call a GxE factor. I went to considerable lengths to get seeds of Brandywine, a variety that many tomato fetishists in the US rave about. Amy Goldman calls its flavor “perfection.” In Somerset in England, over several seasons, outdoors and under plastic, it underwhelmed me. Lots of other heirlooms tasted superb under the same conditions.

  4. It’s important for people to realize too that heirloom does not equal good flavor automatically. Farmers generations ago were also interested in yield and shelf life as well (although the priorities were weighted a little differently) and there are plenty of cruddy tasting heirlooms out there. (More than a few of the heirloom tomatoes in Amy Goldman’s book are rated “poor”, and although GxE is a very real factor, you don’t have to read too much old veggie literature to realize that a lot of them were never that great…)

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