The sacred practice of heirloom seed saving meets the power of hybrids- but can’t admit it
To many, seed saving is a sacred ritual, a presumed preservation of genetics that subverts the mission of monster seed companies, a grass-roots effort to gather and save grass roots. It approaches religious fervor, ignoring the tenets of genetics and the realities of outcrossing in a homespun crusade to maintain genetic purity of seeds passed down from gardener to gardener, shunning modern technology — using the internet’s most visited websites and distribution channels.
An heirloom fruit or vegetable is a genetic line that was selected and preserved for its excellent sensory attributes, yet fails in most areas of practical production. In other words, they usually taste amazing, but are too soft to ship or sell at retail, they have pitiful yields, or they are susceptible to diseases that modern varieties brush off without challenge. They do not have to be ancient, as some heirloom varieties sold in major seed catalogs are of relatively recent vintage.
This is why they are confined to farmers markets and home gardens. In terms of science, heirloom varieties are sometimes important repositories of the genetics that host long-lost flavors and aromas. Plants originally selected for their table qualities have been since bred for modern priorities, like size, color, yield and disease resistance. Intense annual selection of new varieties focuses on these farmer- and retail-valued traits, and maybe less on flavor and aroma.
That’s how we got the Pink Subway Sandwich Tomato, an icon of modern ag’s willingness to put a mediocre reddish thing in the basket because it is probably maybe good enough most likely. That’s what heirloom enthusiasts correctly loathe.
The preservation of heirlooms is viewed by many as a sacred mission, often led by some of the major seed catalogs. Hybrids are considered an anathema, a bastardization of nature’s elite genetics, a spicy fart in the seed vault, and a monkey wrench in the efforts to maintain genetic purity. That’s the stuff of Big Ag and their endless contamination of hallowed heirloom lines, as they claim.
Until it’s not. The new trend is heirloom marriage ᵀᴹ (Figure 1), bringing together two heirlooms that combine well together, to create a new mutt of a tomato variety! It is in all senses an arranged marriage producing a hybrid, but they can’t call it that because that would be adopting the methods of Big Seeds. But if the two hybrids are wed together for better or worse, in a delightful holy ritual, it probably isn’t the same thing. At least it can be marketed with that halo.
Technically they should have called this heirloom honeymoon, as Early Girl and Better Boy hit the raised bed for exchange of genetic goodies in order to birth the new variety. But nobody contacted me for that gem.
Can’t Save Those Seeds
The resulting hybrid is a new composite of genetics, but even the most ardent seed saver will not get the seeds to breed true. If replanted, the next generation will give rise to a massive variation in the offspring, most that have little of the original heirloom tomato quality. They’ll taste strange, grow poorly, and have pathetic yields. It is a genetic mess with zero rhyme or reason.
If you want the heirloom marriage ᵀᴹ variety again, you’ll have to go back to the seed company and buy more seeds, and they are not cheap- typically 25 to 50 cents each! Are you now a slave to a seed company that seeks to control your seed choice?
Also, the term heirloom marriageᵀᴹ is trademarked, so if you use it on your heirloom hybrid get ready for a phone call from a lawyer (Figure 2), along with the black helicopters and primer gray vans that the seed company bought at the Monsanto estate sale.
Heirloom Heterosis Hypocrisy
For years I’ve listened to opponents of modern genetic technologies lecture me about the dark side of hybrids and how they are used to control farmer choice. I’ve had to endure countless discussions of genetic purity and the importance of seed saving to preserve untainted genetics.
I’ve always talked about the power of heterosis, the vigor that comes from combining genetics that were never meant to be combined, that when profound genetic uniformity collides with profound genetic uniformity — something incredible can happen.
But heirloom fans and seed catalogs shunned such rhetoric, until now. Now they see the value of mixing disparate genetics in unprecedented ways, combining genes in wild ways, creating a new genetic concoction that is untested, unregulated, and has to be bought again from the seed company if you want more.
And that is just fine.
It once again illuminates the hypocrisy, and shows us that entrenched viewpoints and unwavering standards are put aside when someone sees money in the corner of their eye. It also shows that as long as genetic tricks come from companies they support, its no problem.
Why the Whining, Folta?
Last spring I volunteered to speak to a local seed saver group. I love their attitude and ethics, and they employ many disabled people into productive work. Awesome. I just was concerned that they were not saving seed that was true-to-type — in other words, they likely were saving something that might not produce something expected. I was going to speak about plant breeding and basic genetics. At the very last moment I was cancelled because someone complained that it would be a talk on GMOs.
You see the problem. Hybrids are bad if they come from a large seed company but gold if they come from a trusted small source. Good scientific information is forbidden if it comes from a scientist, but bad information is embraced if it comes from a guy whose brother works on an organic farm.
Synthesis. It is about the source of the seeds, the source of the information and who they wish to trust. That sometimes leads to good decisions, but often causes bad decisions and wasted resources, and ultimately impedes their mission to grow healthy, tasty and nutritious food.
It means we have to be better communicators, but the listener sometimes has to check their own biases, and determine if their efforts are counterproductive and hypocritical. Most of the time in discussions of food and farming, the connection between someone and their beliefs are forged in strong bonds, ’til death do they part.