Garden or Museum – what’s the big deal with heirloom veg?

– Posted in: Edible Organic Gardens

Medieval peasants worked hard for low yields. Do we really want to go back to their heirlooms?

Heirloom vegetables and flowers (or as well call them over here – heritage) have been big for some time now. Much more so in North America than home. In fact I am always really surprised about how enthusiastic American gardeners are about ‘vegetables our grandmothers grew’. The love of heirloom veg however goes along with a certain hostility to modern varieties, and modern breeding methods such as F1 hybridisation, particularly claims that heirlooms taste better; there is also an undercurrent that heirlooms are somehow better for the world, more ethical. Here I’d like to challenge this and stand up for modern scientific plant breeding. There is also a political point I’d like to make.

First, the taste thing. Commercial growers don’t like heirlooms (poor yielding, finickity, unreliable) so the ‘standard’ varieties in the shops have sat around for a bit and are not going to taste as fresh as ones cut a couple of hours ago in the garden, which is where the majority of heirlooms are grown. So – a myth is born, that moderns are less tasty.

A 'Dig for Victory' poster from World War II Britain.

Yes, it is fun to grow heirlooms – the wonderful names, the good looks of some, the connection with the past etc etc, but are we gardening or running a museum? Is gardening just a hobby or are we trying to do something a bit more serious, like reducing our ‘food miles’ and growing fresh food we know we have some control over? There are folk who spend time and money doing up old cars, but do they drive to work in a Model T Ford? Or those who love heirloom clothes but do they turn up for work in a crinoline, or gaiters, or a top hat and tails? No. So why the obsession with heirloom veg?

My experiences with heirloom veg has left me yearning for more modernity. Kale ‘Nero di Toscana’ looks good, but it’s like eating leather. Beetroot ‘Chioggia’ looks beautiful grated in a salad but cooked into borsht it looked so disgusting (grey) that my wife threw it out. Tomato ‘Gardener’s Delight’ sure tastes good, but it splits (and then rots) faster than any other tomato.

Almost by definition, a new variety has to be better than an old one, otherwise why put it on the market. Nearly all veg is bred for commercial growers of course, not home gardeners, but for the most part all growers want the same: reliable, high-yielding, good-looking, tasty and disease and stress-resistant plants. The only time the commercial and the home grower really separate is over harvest time, as there are certain crops which the commercial grower needs to harvest all at once and which won’t stand but which the home grower wants for as long as possible – for this reason I would never touch F1 broccoli – I want the stuff for months, not all at once.

Modern breeding uses a range of techniques to bring genes together to improve our crops, often incorporating a wide range of genetic diversity: e.g. genes from flavour from one variety – maybe from Russia, for productivity from another – maybe from Italy, for virus-resistance from a wild relative, etc etc. Modern varieties may contain genes from tens of traditional ones or wild ancestors. Those with small gardens and not much time (i.e. most of us) want varieties which are consistent and reliable. And…. even if we are not card-carrying organic growers, we don’t want to spray. One of the biggest areas of modern plant-breeding is to produce varieties which are resistant to common pests and diseases – so now we have carrots resistant to carrot fly, potatoes to potato blight and tomatoes to a whole raft of nasty pathogens.

Heirloom varieties need proper management if their special qualities are to survive from year to year. The danger with their current high-fashion status is that this doesn’t happen, small inexperienced businesses save seed gets from year to year, with small changes accumulating which eventually dilute the original distinct characteristics of the variety. ‘Seed exchanges’ are worse, they may be fun, but they are a recipe for poorly managed genestocks getting muddled. Commercially-managed ‘open-pollinated’ seed varieties are at least professionally managed for consistency.

Most veg varieties are still open-pollinated as opposed to F1s where two distinct varieties are crossed to produce a ‘one-off’ seed crop – sow the seed from an F1 and you get something very different next year (and usually nothing like as good). So F1 seed does commit you to buying fresh every year. There have always been suspicions that the seed trade has deliberately promoted F1 varieties in order to stop growers saving their own seed. This may be true, and an issue for poor farmers in developing countries, but how many of us are going to begrudge spending an extra dollar on a packet of seed which delivers what F1s do so well – consistent and reliable crops, often with a special factor bred in – many of the best disease-resistant varieties are F1 for a very good reason – that the resistance cannot be bred into open-pollinated varieties.

As I said, I don’t recommend them for crops which have a short cropping period, but for cabbages, leeks, tomatoes and indeed most veg, I buy F1 if I get the chance. It is F1 technology which gives us slow-to-bolt Chinese cabbage, fly-resistant carrots and….. the clincher…… sweet corn which doesn’t lose flavour five minutes after picking. “I rest my case” as they say in courtrooms over here.

'Cutting Cabbages', a British romantic painting of the Victorian era. I think these cottagers would have dropped their 'heirlooms' for our modern varieties at the drop of a hat (or bonnet).

I’m going to end on a political note. I think the heirloom veg obsession is part of a way we see farming and growing through a rose-tinted romantic glass. Can we get real please? We have got more and more people on this earth to feed, they want more and more of the good stuff which we in the rich world take for granted, the climate is changing, and farmers need to produce to earn money – to lift them out of poverty in many cases. Sniping at the Green Revolution (which saved the world from famine in the 1960s) has given way to denunciations of the GM technology which has been an enormous breakthrough in breeding (cornborer- resistant corn, bollworm-resistant cotton, and just about to come out – corn which needs less water). Its high time we stopped being romantic about food production. Lets embrace the plant breeding technology which has always fed us, and make a start in our own vegetable gardens.

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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Marie March 31, 2011, 7:17 am

Amen!!

Dave March 31, 2011, 7:29 am

I use both F1 and Heirloom in my garden and honestly have found the heirlooms to be tastier – at least with tomatoes. I’ve also found little difference in performance. One of the best tasting tomatoes with the least cracking last year was the ‘Orange Woodle’, an heirloom. You’re right that generally F1 may provide better resistance to diseases and maybe better performance but heirlooms are all hybrids that have stabilized over years of growing. Some of them have developed characteristics that the F1s have. Still I don’t have any issues with F1 – they have a place in the garden, but I do enjoy the heirloom tomato taste better than any hybrid I’ve tried. It’s hard to beat a Brandywine for flavor.

As for GM seed that is shaky ethical ground. In some cases it might be fine, I’m no scientist so I can’t tell you if its safe or not, but I am not a fan of producing crops that can’t be killed with conventional herbicides just for our convenience. The impact to the environment can’t be measured until the damage is done.

Stan Horst @ Garden Bench Reviews March 31, 2011, 8:31 am

Well said. Ever since the foundational work of Gregor Mendel, people have been using the science of genetics to work at producing new strains that are healthier, more productive, easier to grow, and generally more reliable. I agree that the focus on growing heirloom plants is more about looking at history through rose-colored-glasses. After all, it is somewhat nostalgic to grow the same tomato variety that my grandmother grew, and her grandmother before that, using seeds that have been preserved and passed from generation to generation. But that has nothing to do with “better.”

Stan Horst
Publisher: BetterBenches.com

Dorothy/Gardening with Nature March 31, 2011, 10:14 am

Very thought-provoking. As one who grows both heirloom and modern veggies in my garden, I’m most definitely in the middle, but the call of the blogger to “get real” about food production rings true to me. In my home garden, I can grow whatever finicky vegetable or fruit that I have a taste for and that works for me. Commercial food producers have the much harder task of having to balance the desires of the food-buying public with what is economically viable on the land that they have in production. It is ever a conundrum and the writer has explored its ramifications very succinctly and eloquently.

Susan in the Pink Hat March 31, 2011, 11:45 am

I for one like museums. They are places to go where will you see things that you can’t see anywhere else, preserving the best of our heritage and safeguarding it for future generations to appreciate. With more people growing heirloom and old-fashioned varieties, what was valued is given a chance for future gardeners to appreciate and enjoy. And isn’t everyone always railing on about how newer cultivars aren’t always better?

plantingoaks March 31, 2011, 12:31 pm

I LOVE that people are starting to look at both sides of this. Uncompromising dogma about the ‘green’ way to do things, and labeling non-believers as ‘evil’ is hardly the way to form an intelligent, sustainable ( pun intended ) community of practice.

However, I’m somewhat suspicious that the interests of commercial and home growers are as aligned as you say they are. They are both interested in disease resistance and predictability, yes, but the commercial grower values appearance and marketability over taste, as well as putting a premium on ease of harvest and shipping. A home grower doing it as a hobby rather than as a subsistence activity is probably almost wholly focused on taste and perhaps novelty, with only a secondary focus on reliability. Afterall, if the crop fails, they can buy someone else’s reliable varieties at the grocery and not suffer very much.

I thought Joseph at greensparrow gardens had a great analysis of how market forces influence varieties here: http://www.greensparrowgardens.com/2010/10/why-grocery-store-apples-are-better.html
He has a very interesting point that for items like apples, where the item variety is publicized, there is market pressure towards taste that isn’t there for crops like peaches (his example) or tomatoes.

So, while I don’t completely agree with you, I think it’s a great step towards a better middle. Bravo to you for saying unpopular things.

vicki March 31, 2011, 4:10 pm

Mr. Kingsbury, it is a fact, not a myth, that the majority of vegetables bred for commercial suppliers of supermarkets during the 60s-early 90s here in the US did not taste very good. Because they had to survive a journey of 1000-3000 miles from farm to market, most veg were selected for toughness not flavor. That’s why home gardeners turned to grandad for advice about what to grow…because we remembered that veg used to taste better than what we could purchase in our markets. That was not a myth.

Quite frankly, very few US gardeners I know reject hybrids out of hand. No experienced gardener I am familiar with chooses a veg based solely on whether it is an heirloom or not. “How does it taste?” is the most important question for most home gardeners.

Heirloom tomatoes started the trend here in the US. I’ve grown all types of tomatoes for 35+ years (beginning with Burpee’s famous hybrids). While I won’t argue that every heirloom vegetable variety tastes better than any hybrid, I am convinced that the best heirloom tomatoes beat all of the most popular hybrids–even the famous Rutgers “Jersey” tomato– by a very long margin. It’s true, they don’t travel very well. But some also win for production. The most prolific–and one of the best tasting–tomatoes I’ve ever grown is ‘Carmello’. It’s an heirloom variety. Beats all of the hybrids I’ve tried for both production and taste. It has also proven to be very resistant to disease…in my garden.

How sad that the focus was “tough veg that could travel” rather than how to grow great tasting veg in cold climates without relying on fossil fuels.

It’s also true that we must rely on good heirloom suppliers to keep the strains going. I’m very happy, for another even more important reason, to support their work.

The current focus on heirloom seeds here in the US is to preserve a “free market” source for seeds…to make sure that our food is protected from the greedy, dangerous corporation that is seeking to control the world’s seed supply. Since you failed to address this issue–which I consider the most important factor in a discussion of this nature–I wonder if you are aware that Monsanto purchased the world’s largest seed supplier, Seminis, about 5 years ago. It’s difficult to find a seed seller that does not rely on Seminis. The vast majority of fruits and vegetables sold in Western countries were grown from Seminis seeds. Monsanto could not care less about the world’s health and well-being. Small, by comparison, seed houses that work to preserve heirloom seeds are securing and preserving our future food sources…So that future plant breeders who are NOT employed by Monsanto can continue to provide us with good food plants.

That’s why I’m very grateful “the public” has come to believe heirloom seeds are something to treasure. It’s one step closer to becoming a more educated public on the topic of “where our food comes from.” Frankly, the issue of organic seeds vs “standard” seed–and certainly vs GM seed– is becoming a hotter topic on this side of the pond–and is, in my opinion, a much more important question for debate and disclosure.

http://www.seedalliance.org/index.php?page=SeminisMonsanto

Lisa March 31, 2011, 5:18 pm

I always grow both hybrids and heirlooms tomatoes in my garden. The hybrids are great, reliable producers for canning, while the heirlooms are more flavorful and great fresh. When grown side by side, even the so proclaimed “best tasting” hybrid varieties cant stand up to the purple cherokees, black krims, and brandywines. Yes, the harvests are not as big, and the diseases and insects more rampant in some cases, but personally I can taste a big difference.

There is nothing wrong with hybrid tomatoes, but there is a important link between breeding disease resistance and selecting for mutations in the diseases to overcome the new cultivars…. which is the reason researchers are always looking for new ones! It is a vicious boom-and-bust cycle that every gardener should be aware of! Heirlooms on the other hand are reliable over decades. To each his own though!

Alan @ it's not work it's gardening March 31, 2011, 5:46 pm

I’ve never really thought about it this way. I embrace technology in most other areas of my life, why not the garden? Last year I was all heirloom with my tomatos, and was disappointed with the result (bad year for tomatos?). This year I’m trying new varieties, including some that are F1. I’ll still try some hierlooms too though — it’s always good to have comparisons.

Great post!

Joe at Juniper Hill Farm March 31, 2011, 8:08 pm

If given the chance, I’ll opt for heirloom veggies for the same reason I opt to raise heritage breeds of livestock–to protect genetic diversity. This single-minded approach doesn’t necessarily mean that every heirloom tomato will taste better than its “more modern” hybrid counterpart or that every heritage breed cow will produce more milk than the ubiquitous holstein.

I’m not interested in plant museums. Likewise, I’m not all that interested in how I can concoct a tomato that travels more comfortably. What does interest and concern me, however, is the rapid loss of those plants that have spent thousands of years adapting to the specific ecological pressures where they evolved. Along with their disappearance goes their natural abilities to ward off pests and survive climatic conditions that are peculiar to their niche.

And then, there’s the nagging problem of concentration of power in the food industry. Although there is no escaping their pervasiveness, patented F1 and GM seeds are simply providing the “bricks and mortar” for huge multi-national food conglomerates. And, if you think these entities aren’t serious about wielding power, just ask the seed savers and seed dealers who had their livelihoods shattered by teams of Monsanto lawyers. Thankfully, just this Tuesday, we learned that farmers have had enough and are willing to fight this latest assault on our system of agriculture, when a consortium of organic growers and seed dealers filed suit against the global seed giant.

Sandy March 31, 2011, 8:50 pm

My fundamental problem with your post is that I don’t know who your audience is. To assert that heirlooms are over-rated, you are painting a broad brush. Commercial farming? Likely not. Local small farms? Depends on climate, local market needs, and your goals. Small home garden…. why not? Many home gardeners can put up with some waste, it is why many of us plant too much. The ROI is negligible. It is quite easy to put up a vast quantity of home grown, heirloom varieties. You simply make trade-offs on taste, variety, and yield. Myself, I won’t buy a tomato in the winter, a total waste of money. But, I will put up some frozen and canned for great rewards in winter.

Phil April 1, 2011, 3:01 am

Well said! I wouldn’t want the ‘heritage varieties’ to disappear – they should be characterised as far as possible and conserved because they may have genes that will be useful in future breeding programmes, but you are right – people do get over-sentimental about them to the point where they become blind to their limitations. They also use them as an emotive pretext for attacks on modern technology, often when their reasons for doing so have more to do with politics than with any real scientific basis. I can, however, see another reason why people like to grow them in their gardens. Many of these old varietries have a narrative that is carried with them – they are a tangible link with the past and with our gardening ancestors. Private gardens are more than places for aesthetic pleasure or food production – they evolve deeper personal meanings for their owners, a storyline that’s interwoven with their lives and personal interests. Heritage varieties, which can sometimes be family heirlooms passed down through the gardening generations, can be a living element of that. This is one of the features that differentiates a real garden from the ‘makeover plots’ beloved of televsion producers – real gardens evolve personal meaning for their owners. You can’t buy that.

Petra Hoyer Millar April 1, 2011, 3:41 am

Noel, you have certainly blown your invitation to Highgrove with this post. Surely both arguments can co-exist? There is scope for both harbouring heritage as well as producing modern (scientific) varieties? Why one or the other? Crucially, protecting heritage/heirloom plants does not just protect varieties but plant categories too. Medlars for example, never to be seen commercially; described as monkey’s bottoms, need to rot prior to eating, in other words the complete recipe for commercial failure But does that merit losing them? Agreed, this nostalgic train of thought, is certainly not of interest to most commercial farmers, nor should it be. When we go to the supermarket, most want some kind of standard when buying fruits and vegetables, and the farmer’s success depends on their being able to supply that demand. Furthermore, if the demand requires more produce from local sources, those local sources must be able to provide the required quantity and quality without the need for supplements from abroad. In terms of reducing food miles there is certainly a big case for modern scientific plant breeding. Perhaps some of the negative perception stem from the actual term ‘scientific’ plant breeding, which does make it sound like some kind of Signourney Weaver adventure. Very often, the ‘scientific’ part is using not only modern knowledge, but also that of the past, eg from the Victorians. Hence, I agree with you that modern plant breeding is vital. We have all enjoyed the proceeds in some form or other. I am particularly fond of the ever reliable Jazz apple, modern cross between a hard Braeburn and sweet Gala. Although for this argument, it is important to think beyond national boundaries. Having lived in Africa for over 15 years, there is no doubt that farmers there need new varieties, to help them grow in the conditions that they face. Lack of water, scorching temperatures, flash floods, numerous pests & diseases and increasing population growth, does means we need to do better. It is very clever and fortunate, that they can now for example grow varieties of wheat and corn that are stunted, hence not too tall, so that the plant requires less water, and is stronger than those we grow here. On our doorstep too, don’t forget that our environment is also changing, global warming is already affecting current flora and fauna. We may therefore require more modern plant breeding. The Monsanto comments are new to me, so it will be interesting to see if farmers will be able to take a stand. This case surely merits government intervention regarding monopolisation of the market?
Oh and ps… without meaning to insult your cooking skills, but you must be doing something wrong with that Cavolo Nero….

Laurel April 1, 2011, 7:32 am

Very interesting post – thanks for bringing up the discussion. The responses have been very thoughtful too.

Just to put in my $.02, I grow some hybrids and some heirlooms. I value taste and disease resistance and productivity – finding a balance is part of the ongoing debate over growing hybrids or heirlooms. Frankly, I find the growing monopoly of Monsanto over seed supplies to be alarming, and I look at growing heirloom or rare varieties as a way to preserve biodiversity and the simple freedom to grow what I want, not what a transnational corporation will allow me to grow to their profit. Many F1s are just as tasty as many heirlooms, but it’s not a 100% “F1s are better” or “Heirlooms are better” conclusion for me, although I know there are many who will swear forever that one or the other is best. I love the stories behind heirlooms – their history, the connection with our past. I do choose to grow organically, using both kinds of seed. I guess I’d say, all things in moderation, and grow what you like to eat or enjoy for beauty or fragrance. Share what you grow, and be responsible with your bit of earth. The people you share your garden with (in bounty or beauty or both) won’t care where your seed came from, but they’ll sure know your heart.

Kathy Fitzgerald April 1, 2011, 9:46 am

Well said, everyone! From flavor to politics, “garden-coached” gardens versus personality and history-laden spaces, unknown environmental ramifications to shrinking and contaminated genomes, to our freedom to buy those waxy pink but unblemished tomato-shaped lumps of paraffin from Mexico or Chile when the raccoons make off with our Black Krims, we’ve covered the subject. Talk about a civil discourse!
Personally. I find cutting daffodil pest-resistance into rice for human consumption when daffs are poisonous in all their parts a bit worrying. And then there’s the little problem of herbicide-resistant food crops causing herbicide resistance in the very weeds herbicide-resistant crops were bred to resist, resulting in more chemical use, not less. Oh, clever Monsanto!
Technology has done much to improve our lives, but it also exacts a price. Instant gratification, convenience and cheapness trump everything else, at least on this side of the pond. Paul Valery said, “The machine killed patience.” DuPont says, “Better living through chemistry.” Isn’t it up to us, as gardeners in frequent contact with the soil, to be a voice in reminding others there are things more important than the multi-national conglomerates’ bottom lines?
And that’s what I think the heirloom foodstuffs “craze” is really about.
Peace and love, y’all.

VP April 1, 2011, 10:04 am

A thought provoking post and an interesting debate.

Noel, I know you’ve studied this topic deeply and I’d love to see a debate between yourself and Ben from Real Seeds whose background is from the plant breeding world but has decided to take a different tack and promote open pollinated, non-F1 varieties.

As for some of the disease resistant new cultivars, my experience of them so far has been most disappointing. Disease resistant yes, but taste-wise a big no no. This particularly applies to the Sarpo potato varieties, plus tomatoes and carrots I’ve tried.

Like others who’ve responded thus far, my criteria for growing is taste and extended cropping season. These tend to be lower priorities when growing commercially and I believe it’s this difference in priorities which is fuelling heritage varieties with most grow your own people, rather than any rose tinted spectacles they may be wearing.

Nicole April 1, 2011, 12:03 pm

I grow both types of vegetables and while I agree the modern varieties were bred to be reliable, high-yielding, uniform looking (rather than good looking) and disease and stress-resistant plants I disagree with the statement on taste as pertain to US vegetables and tomatoes. There is no comparison to say a green zebra tomato or black Krim compared to a freshly picked F1.

I am from the Caribbean and we cannot stand the taste of the US bred tropical fruits like citrus, etc. which tastes to us like weak sour or sweet water. Even when the fruits are sweet its just a uniform sweetness with no flavors or nuances. Many of the US vegetables like pumpkin are to us devoid of richness and flavor. Ditto many UK ones.

When I travel to Africa and Asia and taste their “heirloom” vegetables as well as Asian bred vegetables the flavor blows one away. Well the earth and sunshine do have a part to play in the flavor but still, I am happy for the preservation and dissemination of heirloom vegetables.

I do disagree with those who consider all modern advances in plants and seeds as “evil”. However re the statement “and an issue for poor farmers in developing countries, but how many of us are going to begrudge spending an extra dollar” well, “poor farmers in developing countries” outnumber “us” by the millions so that dismissive attitude is very worrying. Plus I have seen the ill effects of this F1 seed promotion among poor farmers-I don’t think mass starvation and early childhood deaths by the thousands is really a justification for anything.

These poor farmers and their families are in fact not getting “more and more of the good stuff” when corrupt US and European companies pay corrupt politicians in poor countries to foist these seeds on poor farmers by convincing them to abandon their traditional varieties, leading to dependence or starvation for the next few decades, and often both.

Noel Kingsbury April 1, 2011, 3:01 pm

Yo! That got you all going didn’t it! Thought it might. Lots of interesting points here in your comments. Keep ‘em coming!

In response to the general trend:
1. Taste. This seemed to be the big issue. Do people complain about carrots, broccoli, cabbages? No, its nearly always fruit and tomatoes. Transport and storage kill flavour which is why grow your own or buy from just down the road is always going to be better for these. Until recently breeders did not breed for flavour it is true, but did the breeders of heirlooms breed for taste? I don’t think there is much evidence that they did – they bred for reliability/resilience, yield, edibility (just not being bitter or tough was a big struggle in plant breeding history), and simple ability to grow in a wide range of environments.
I am convinced taste is the result not just of genes but growing conditions:
A: Consider this little extract from my book ‘Hybrid, the History and Science of Plant Breeding’ (University of Chicago Press)– “I was once visiting a friend in Wisconsin, touring his orchard, when he offered me a ‘Red Delicious’ apple, fresh from the tree. Knowing how tasteless this variety normally is, I bit into it rather dutifully, but was astonished at how rich and aromatic the flavour turned out to be. The irony is that when fresh, this is a wonderful apple.” Moral – That you can mummify respectably on the shelves of the local supermarket is no reason why you can’t taste good when freshly plucked from the tree.
B: Knowing how Americans rave about ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes I tried them last year, in the polytunnel. Rubbish. Pap. Worst tomato since I tried ‘Sub-Arctic Plenty’ 5 years ago. 500ft up in the Welsh Borders clearly does not suit them.
Moral – Blame environment not just genes.
2. I do enjoy growing things with a history too, as gardening at home is about enjoyment not just yield. My current fave veg is ‘Georgia Collard Greens’ which have survived a winter which has killed all our broccoli and cabbages, so here’s one which covers both bases. My point about romanticism though is that we need to keep separate what we do for pleasure from what actually makes the world a better place, and not kid ourselves that growing heirlooms puts us on top of the moral dung heap.
3. Many of you mentioned that you grow heirlooms to keep them alive. Fair enough. But what for? The fact that they can be used to breed new varieties is of course one reason, but all these old varieties are held in seed banks by the people who breed worthwhile new varieties anyway. The sad fact is that very few people outside the corporate sector are actively using heirlooms to breed new varieties (2 who are: http://www.realseeds.co.uk and http://www.wildgardenseed.com). I suspect that part of the reason for this is that it is really only the big boys who have the resources to make significant breakthroughs – science costs money these days folks.
4. Which brings me on to corporate control of the seed industry. Personally (speaking as a pinko European Social Democrat) I think the balance has shifted too far towards the corporate, but for us in the developed world (plant breeding in the developING world is still more likely to be public) does this matter so much? I am utterly dependent on Apple and British Telecom to communicate, and Renault to get about, and Texaco to fill the getting-about-machine with diesel. Is it such a big deal that I might be theoretically considered dependent on Monsanto for the ingredients for my food? Monsanto has no more interest in me starving than Apple has in me stopping me writing on my computer or Renault stopping me driving.
5. Having mentioned the M-word (Monsanto). Can we move on please? 10-15 years ago they, and certain other Ag-Corps were trying to buy up every gene which might be worth something. They got slapped down, by courts, by governments, by international agencies, and got made fools of by Argentinian and Indian farmers helping themselves to their ‘patented’ genes. Monsanto today is a far less arrogant corporation; the world itself has begun to move on from the neo-liberal hegemony of the 1990s. Trouble is, so many food and environment activists find old myths just too attractive for their black-and-white certainties.
6. I am not waiting for an invite to Highgrove any time soon. When HRH adds GM-Tofuburgers to his Duchy Originals range of (grossly overpriced) foods, I expect to be invited to a tasting. OK!

Chookie April 2, 2011, 12:33 am

Last year, a gardener at Vaucluse House here in Sydney (which includes an heirloom vegetable plot) told me that a variety of bean they tried, with a name like “Early Pretty” had been dubbed “Erky Yucky” by the staff because it tasted so bad! My guess is that it was meant to be dried rather than eaten fresh. I think you made a similar mistake with Chioggia: a beetroot with an Italian name is probably not going to be good in borshch, especially given its lack of colour and its sweetness. Similarly, there’s a saying that you need to put the water on to boil before you go out to pick your sweet corn. The point that a lot of home gardeners are making is that heirlooms cater better for their needs because they were bred to cater for home needs. But whether it’s a modern or heirloom variety, you need to know what it was bred to do to prevent disappointment.