Heirloom vs. Hybrid Produce

One reoccurring question at the farmers market over the past few weeks has been whether or not our cherry tomatoes are “heirlooms.”

“No,” I answer. “They’re a hybrid.”

I’ve been surprised by how often this response makes people turn away. The farm‘s cherry tomatoes are gorgeous. So why are people so enamored with heirlooms and so scared of hybrids?

The term “heirloom” is used to describe varieties of produce that have been cultivated for over 50 years. The most well-known heirlooms are tomatoes such as Cherokee Purple and Brandywine.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are also open-pollinated, which means that they’re pollinated by wind or bees. Open-pollinated plants reliably produce seeds that have the same traits as the parent plant.

Open-pollination is what allows heirloom seeds to be passed down generation to generation. Heirloom varieties arise from humans saving seeds from plants with the most desirable features, such as tastiness of fruit, and selecting for those traits year after year.

Hybrids, on the other hand, are created by plant breeders crossing compatible cultivars in an effort to create plants with the best features of both parents. Many of our modern plants are the results of these crosses.

Hybrid plants do not reliably produce seeds that have the features of the parent plant, and thus their seeds can’t be saved. But hybrids are useful to farmers because they are bred for traits like disease resistance, earlier maturity, vigor, and flavor.

I work on a small, organic farm where we plant many hybrid vegetables because they consistently produce the best pattypan squash or the best Chinese broccoli or the best cherry tomato. We plant heirlooms too, including slicing tomatoes, but only the varieties that outperform their hybrid counterparts.

The downside of hybrids is that they raise concerns over food sovereignty. When farmers can’t save seeds, they become dependent on seed companies. However, seed saving is an extremely labor-intensive task, so many farmers find the trade-off worthwhile.

I think some customers at the farmers market might have a negative reaction to our hybrid tomatoes because they’re confusing hybrids with GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. The term “hybrid” is not synonymous with “GMO.” Most hybrids don’t contain foreign DNA, they just have a fancy pedigree.

Image courtesy of Satrina0 via a Creative Commons license.

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2 thoughts on “Heirloom vs. Hybrid Produce”

    1. But heirloom produce has been altered too. Heirloom produce comes about via artificial selection, or intentional breeding for certain traits. An heirloom tomato, for instance, is not the original fruit that was found in nature.

      It’s also worth noting that hybridization between plants (and, to a lesser extent, animals) is quite common in nature.

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