Sunday, March 2, 2014

The great seed debate

The great seed debate.
It’s friggin’ ridiculously cold outside and I’m very much over it. Which is why those seed racks that are suddenly appearing everywhere I look are even more tempting then normal.
Let’s be honest, I already have a ridiculous number of seeds to plant this year, some arrived via dangerous late night sessions on the internet, others are last year’s leftovers, and a bunch were freebies from Renee’s Seeds because I write about gardens. (Last year they sent me Arugla Wasabi that has to be, hands down, the most amazing thing ever – true, bright, sharp wasabi taste in a salad leaf. I adored it.)
So I really don’t need to be shopping those seed racks at all, but I am pulled to their packages like a sugar junkie faced with a box of Cinnabuns. I am helpless. And I know I’m not alone.
Where I feel a little more alone is in the whole hybrid, heirloom debate as I readily confess that I have both kinds of seeds in the enormous pile hidden behind my computer waiting for the kitchen garden soil to warm.
First let’s just clear things up, there is no way that you and I can get our hands on GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds. Hybrids are not GMO seeds. GMO seeds have been built using technology that splice genes and combine species that aren’t intended by nature to go together. Frog genes in tomatoes for cold tolerance and pesticide resistance in soybeans and corn are examples of genetically modified organisms.
So our debate is between hybrid and heirloom seeds.
A hybrid is a seed that has been bred by farmers or scientists to create a better (the definition of better is an interesting thing which we’ll come to in a second) plant. This is where two eggplants are bred together to create a third eggplant that is, again, “better” then it’s parents. It is a controlled method of pollination and is deliberately done to breed a specific trait.
Heirloom seeds are old seeds. Meant to be at least 100 years old, most are found to have been in existence just before the 1940’s. In addition, heirlooms are reproduced by open pollination (by wind, insect, bird, human or other natural mechanism) and are true plants in that their offspring are almost identical to their parents. If you save seeds from your heirloom tomato and plant them out the following year, all your new plants will be extraordinarily similar to your original plant. If you did the same thing with a hybrid tomato, either the seeds would be sterile, or all the offspring would be radically different from the plant you grew the previous year. So get the same hybrid plant each year, you have to buy more seeds from the seed companies. So obviously seeds companies prefer hybrids, as they are significantly more profitable. Once you have one heirloom tomato, you never need to buy tomato seeds again.
So let’s define ‘better’ hybrid.  Well my definition is going to be different then that of the scientist that created the evil tasteless tomato I get in the supermarket from commercial farmers. I don’t care about ‘better’ when the tomato gives up taste for longer shelf life, and more uniformity or size. But I do care about ‘better’ when the tomato I’m growing is more resistant to late blight. And heirlooms, although they taste very good, tend not to be resistant to most common diseases. (Of course there’s always the exception, two years ago a local farmer had all his tomatoes totally wiped out by blight, both hybrids and heirlooms, with the sole survivor that season being an heirloom named Pineapple.)
So here’s my problem.
I want the best of both worlds.
I love heirloom seeds. I love the idea of seeds that we can use to become self-sufficient. I embrace entirely the wresting of control of our nation’s seeds’ genetic banks out from corporate America and back into the hands of those who are actually eating the end product. I love keeping classic good things available, and knowing the newer isn’t necessarily better. But I want my Sun Gold Cherry Tomatoes. They are most definitely hybrids, and they are most definitely delicious.
Hard core heirloom supporters would deny me my Sun Golds. The Baker Creek Catalog (which only sells heirloom seeds) says that their customers don’t want hybridization in their seeds, well how do they think their heirlooms were created? By the wind?
All those beautiful heirloom tomatoes everyone is fawning over were not created by the wind or by bees, they were created by farmers crossing plants, they were taking the best genes from one plant and combining it with another plant to create a third plant that has the best traits of the first two plants. They were hybridized. The man who created Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter, was a tomato lover who kept crossing and improving various plants until he created one that produced such big, beautiful, delicious red orbs that he was able to sell enough seedlings to pay off his mortgage.
The first seedlings he got from his first cross were not true plants, but he kept crossing and recrossing and recrossing his plants until the hybrid was stable. So if I want to start a big argument with the pure heirloom proponents, I might remind them that all their plants were, at one point, hybrids too.
Now granted this does not mean I’m a fan of companies that patent seeds and sue farmers who try and save seeds from the plants they’ve grown. That’s just one more example of how this planet we live on has gotten out of control.  And no I’m not saying that hybrids are better then heirlooms, any more that I’m advocating tossing away heirloom seeds.
Look, I adore tomatoes. And I adore them for the way they taste, not for how they look or how they ship, and most heirlooms taste amazing. But some of them have only 3 or 4 tomatoes on a plant. Or the wet springs take them down with fusarium wilt. Is it wrong of me to want a tomato to taste amazing and yet to still be able to grow it with ease?
I am glad heirlooms with their incredible taste have been saved and that their gene pool has not been lost, and I’m glad someone created the Sungold Cherry tomato, but what I’m most excited about is that we have decided that we want food to taste good, as opposed to being convenient. That we will pay more and work a little harder to find food that’s delicious and healthy and fresh. And that’s why I’m off to peruse the seed rack. There just might be something else delicious on it.

Paige Patterson is still awaiting her first snowdrops this year.