The Seed Debate
To plant heirloom or hybrid seeds. That’s the question facing many gardeners.
Most are going with heirloom seeds — those of old plant varieties. Gardeners attest to their vigor and stability and the flavorful fruit they produce. The “old seeds” are tried and tested, stalwarts that have adapted to and endured the rigors of their environment.
Modern or hybrid seeds, meanwhile, are getting dumped as quickly as fashionistas might their out-of-style shoes. Younger gardeners, in particular, have mercilessly banished the seeds, perhaps unjustly so, according to this article in the New York Times.
The article pokes fun at gardeners who insist on heirloom seeds, rejecting hybrid seeds of any kind. For many plant breeders and seed savers, the growing “heirloomism” has fostered a “reactionary, and sometimes confused, argument about food, farming and science,” writes Michael Tortorello in his piece.
Hybrids, after all, are heirlooms in progress. They are the result of crosses between breed-compatible types of plants. A tomato plant with resistance to a particular disease, for example, might be crossed with one that produces especially flavorful fruit. The goal is to create a new plant with the best features of both parents through traditional plant breeding, not through the controversial process of genetic modification.
“It’s a matter of personal preference,” said Susan Pell, a botanist and lecturer at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “Overall, heirlooms are a good choice, but if you’re worried about pests, disease, shelf life or other factors, a hybrid might be a better choice for you.”
Heirlooms seeds are defined as varieties that have been saved and passed down through the generations for more than 50 years. They are by definition naturally or “open pollinated” by birds, bees, insects, and other pollinators, such as the wind. They yield plants that produce viable seeds that grow into seedlings just like the parent plant.
Hybrid seeds, on the other hand, aren’t “stable” in the way heirlooms are. There’s no guarantee that plants that come from hybrid seeds will be the same as the parent. Hybrid plants don’t typically produce seeds and if they do, they’re often sterile.
“You don’t know what you’re going to get the next year, if the seeds are even viable,” said Pell.
Hybrid seeds are sometimes patented by large seed companies, the source of anxiety for many gardeners. Growers question the provenance of seeds from large seed suppliers and bemoan the loss of small regional seed companies. As one of the interviewees in the New York Times articles noted, “We don’t like the big boys.”
Heirloom plants have other distinct, almost fable-like characteristics that make them a favorite among backyard gardeners. Unlike hybrid plants, heirlooms continue to grow after setting fruit, recalling the beanstalk in the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale. Because they produce more leaves, heirloom plants provide more surface area for photosynthesis to occur, a process that makes fruit sweeter.
“I’d be hard pressed to find tomatoes from a hybrid that tasted like the ones I had when I was a kid,” said Pell.
Most importantly, heirloom plants help maintain genetic diversity in food crops. They provide a huge amount of plant diversity in terms of size, color, taste and tolerance for difference climates, which makes food a daily palatal adventure.
“If we stop growing heirlooms,” said Pell, “we lose that genetic diversity.”