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A Juicy Debate: Hybrids vs. Heirlooms

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George Ball, July 18, 2010

Today, greener-than-thou gardeners crusade for heirloom seeds, while unjustly damming hybrids. Increasingly, their anti-science credo has hardened into a Luddite fundamentalism, resulting in confusion among the public between hybrids and genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Clearly, the hybrid versus heirloom imbroglio is about more than the quest for the biggest, most delicious tomato.

As a third-generation seedsman, I can lend balance to this lopsided debate. My company, W. Atlee Burpee, has provided American gardeners with heirloom seeds since 1876 and introduced hybrid seeds to American home gardens in 1934. Since Burpee's hybrid and heirloom sales are roughly 50-50, I'm 100 percent in favor of both heirlooms and hybrids.

Starting in the late 1940s, hybrid seed - one of mankind's greatest achievements - transformed agriculture. The "Green Revolution" - the adoption of hybrids by developing nations - boosted wheat, rice and corn harvests, multiplying yields up to tenfold. Hybrids saved millions from famine, dramatically lowered food prices, and helped turn countries dependent on food imports into net exporters. On the home front, hybrid vegetables transformed backyard gardening from a chore into a pleasure abounding with the proverbial bushels of zucchinis and tomatoes.

Many of today's heirlooms were once market varieties prior to the advent of the supermarket; others were regional, from either families or communities such as the Amish. Heirloom devotees are justly smitten with their storybook heritage, relative rarity and unusual flavor.

But when it comes to garden performance, heirlooms prove no match for hybrids. The cachet-free, hard-working hybrids remain "old faithfuls" for the majority of American gardeners. Indeed, in blind taste tests, many home garden hybrids triumph over heirlooms.

What heirlooms may lack in productivity and hardiness, they make up in mystique. True believers overlook their decreased output, lower disease resistance, and - unless they buy heirlooms each year - laborious seed-saving chores. But they go astray when their passion for heirlooms blinds them to the virtues of hybrids.

Increasingly, NGOs and activists are encouraging Third World farmers, in Haiti and elsewhere, to grow heirlooms in lieu of hybrids. By so doing, they are putting their sophisticated personal tastes and aesthetics before the life and death needs of the farmers and their communities - people for whom a poor harvest can be a death sentence. This is nouveau imperialism at its most pernicious: "Let them eat heirlooms."

Yet hybrids have as much history behind them as heirlooms. Farmers and native peoples have been refining and improving seed stock for millennia, selecting the best plants and jettisoning the clunkers. Moreover, due to natural cross-pollination and mutations caused by solar radiation, the genetic makeup of the world's plants is ever changing. Evolution never sleeps.

Without human intervention beginning ten thousand or so years ago, the tomatoes, peppers and other produce we enjoy today would be inedible, even toxic. For example, tech-savvy American Indians progressively wrought extraordinary improvements in corn and potatoes - now global staples. Gregor Mendel's discovery of genetics in 1866 enabled humanity to fulfill these ancestral struggles to develop ever greater food quality and supply. In short, hybrids are improved heirlooms.

In contrast to sterile GMO laboratories, hybrid seed production, created by hand in the outdoors, is about as high tech as knitting. Hybrid research is highly creative, yet little different from what nature does on its own, combining and recombining plants' genes. Spurred by Mendel's work, natural processes are accelerated in both test gardens and winter greenhouses. Breeders work within the plant's genetic system - not outside it. Plus, hybridizers reproduce their plants sexually, while GMO scientists insert DNA into clones. To conflate hybrids with GMOs, as many do, is like mistaking an abacus for a supercomputer.

As for environmental impact, hardy and disease-resistant hybrids require fewer chemical inputs, less water and smaller space. Since they are higher yielding, hybrids reduce habitat destruction in the Third World. You can achieve the same harvest on a quarter as much land.

Finally, contrary to public opinion, genetic diversity is actually enhanced by hybridization. Plant breeders widen available genes by both crossing with wild species and coaxing forth traits already present in domesticated cultivars. Ironically, while expressing unique characteristics, heirlooms, being inbreds, possess narrower gene pools. Therefore, public institutions and private companies, including Burpee, preserve them in seed vaults. By nature, heirlooms exist at a genetic dead end. You can see similar situations in wild animals, livestock and pets. Nevertheless, some heirloom plants possess great virtues, such as novel colors and flavors. We don't have to lose our heirloom past in order to claim our hybrid future.

It's time for gardeners to stop slinging mulch and return to the pleasures and rewards of gardening. There's plenty of room in the vegetable patch for both heirlooms and hybrids.


George Ball is past president of The American Horticultural Society and chairman of the W. Atlee Burpee & Co.