YOU HEAR THE WORD HEIRLOOM tossed around a lot these days, not referring to handed-down relics (like your great grandmother’s pearl necklace or Victorian footstool), but referring to food, especially vegetables and fruits. Heirloom tomatoes get the most attention, but they are by no means the only heirlooms on the block—just about every vegetable and fruit we eat has an heirloom representative somewhere in its lineage, and most still have living relatives.
What sets an heirloom apart from the vast majority of produce found in our supermarkets and grocery stores? Definitions vary, but most gardeners and plant people agree that an heirloom must be an open-pollinated plant (not a hybrid), must have been recognized as a distinct variety for at least 50 years, and have a history of being passed down from one generation to another within a family or community.
Some heirloom plants were here before the first Europeans arrived and featured in the diet of Native Americans; many other heirloom fruits and vegetables here today were brought over as seeds in the bags of immigrants coming from Europe, Africa, Asia and other far-flung parts of the world.
With open-pollinated and heirloom varieties (not all open-pollinated plants satisfy the criteria to qualify as heirlooms), propagation occurs when a flower’s pollen, or male parts, come in contact with its eggs, or female parts. This happens by natural means—most commonly the movement of insects, birds and animals, or even the wind. Some open-pollinated crops have both male and female flowers on the same plant, which simplifies matters. Others, known as self-pollinators, go a step further and have both male and female parts present in the same flower (tomatoes are in this category).
Seeds that result from natural pollination generally breed true to type. This means that seeds from an open-pollinated or heirloom tomato planted the next season will produce the same fruit again. But there’s one important caveat: Different varieties of the same species of some open-pollinated plants can cross with each other in the field. (This happens because bees and other pollinating insects don’t necessarily gather nectar from just one kind of flower.) In this case, offspring are likely to differ quite noticeably from the contributing parents. This is unlikely to happen with tomatoes, which, as noted, are self-pollinating. It is a common occurrence, however, among winter squash. If you grow dissimilar varieties of squash, such as acorn, delicata and sweet dumpling (all Cucurbita pepo) in your garden, or even in the same field, and save the seed to plant the following year, you’re likely to be in for a surprise—you might end up with fruits of unusual shape, size and color that are woody and gourd-like and not very edible.
It should come as no surprise that what gets lost in this whole industrial process is good flavor and often nutritional value.
To save seed from winter squash and pumpkins that will grow true to type, the general rule is that there should be at least a half-mile separating different types. (Either that, or random pollination between varieties of the same species must be prevented. For those who have the inclination, this can be done by taping shut male and female blossoms in their early stages of development before the bees get to them. Later, pollination can be accomplished by rubbing by hand some of the male pollen into the female flower.)
Hybrids, in contrast, are created under controlled conditions that the plants are unlikely to encounter on their own. Different, but usually in-bred, varieties of the same species are painstakingly selected for specific traits. The parents are crossed by humans, often by hand. When all goes well, the first generation offspring, called an F1 hybrid, will display the desired traits and perform nicely (hence the term hybrid vigor). Subsequent generations, however, will be genetically unstable and lack the vigor of the first generation—they do not come out true to type. (An analogy from the world of mammals is the crossing of a horse and a donkey, which produces a sterile mule.) It is, therefore, pretty much a waste of time to save seed from hybrids—new seed must be bought from the hybrid breeder each year.
Traits that hybrid breeders are usually looking for— uniform size, shape and color, concentrated period of ripening and maturing, long shelf life, disease resistance, and ability to tolerate machine harvesting and long-distance shipping—are geared to monoculture and large-scale commercial food production and distribution. It should come as no surprise that what gets lost in this whole industrial process is good flavor and often nutritional value.
Here is where heirlooms and open-pollinated plants step in. Most gardeners and small-scale growers have focused their seed-saving efforts over time on varieties of vegetables and fruits that taste good and satisfy their nutritional needs, rather than those that all look alike or can be shipped thousands of miles without ill effect. Heirloom varieties of perishable crops, like tomatoes or leafy greens, may have a shorter shelf life than comparable hybrids, but they are a real treat if you can get them within a few days of harvest. Heirloom and open-pollinated storage crops like carrots, turnips or beets are also likely to be more pleasing to the palate than their hybrid counterparts.
Backyard gardeners and local growers who sell in farmers’ markets and through CSAs or food co-ops are well positioned to exploit this heirloom and open-pollinated niche. Lucky for us, it’s a tough niche for supermarkets and big food producers to fill.
Another good thing about heirlooms and open-pollinated plants is that they are more genetically diverse than hybrids. Genetic diversity allows plants to adapt to changing soil and climatic conditions. It’s nature’s way of staying around, of keeping fit. With this in mind, groups like the Seed Savers Exchange and other seed banks have made it their mission to preserve open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. If we depended only on hybrids, our entire food system would be more vulnerable.
On our farm we keep a foot in both camps: We grow plenty of our favorite heirlooms along with some select hybrids, which are just too good to pass up.
When we last checked in on Monsanto (issue 58), the self-anointed “seed giant” was embroiled in a lawsuit with the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA). The case challenged Monsanto’s ownership of hundreds of patents on genetically engineered seeds—for soybeans, corn and cotton to alfalfa, sugar beets and canola. The lawsuit additionally sought protection for farmers whose fields of non-genetically engineered crops become contaminated by Monsanto’s seeds through no fault of the farmer. Monsanto is notorious for protecting its patents with aggressive investigations (earning the company the unenviable title of “seed police”) and nuisance lawsuits against small farmers. Here’s a truncated timeline of the major events.
The initial lawsuit, filed on behalf of 73 plaintiffs (representing 4,500 farmers and 300,000 individuals), hits the docket of the Federal District Court of Southern New York.
Judge Naomi Buchwald grants Monsanto’s motion to dismiss in OSGATA et al. v. Monsanto on the grounds that Monsanto’s seed patents had not sufficiently harmed the plaintiffs.
Following an appeal of Buchwald’s judgment by OSGATA et al., the case reaches the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C.
In a related case, the United State Supreme Court rules in favor of Monsanto in Bowman v. Monsanto. The court upheld a lower court’s decision and ruled that Vernon Bowman, an Indiana soybean farmer, violated intellectual property rights when he purchased and planted second-generation seeds without a license.
The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirms the decision of the district court to dismiss OSGATA et al. v. Monsanto, citing a lack of evidence of sufficient controversy to warrant adjudication. During the proceedings, however, Monsanto makes repeated commitments to refrain from suing farmers with “trace amounts” of contamination (up to 1 percent) in their fields, a partial victory for OSGATA et al. The decision also opens the door for farmers with contaminated fields to sue Monsanto for damages without fear of a retaliatory patent-infringement claim.
Recognizing that the 1 percent contamination agreement is only a partial victory and that farmers stand the risk of being contaminated to a much greater degree, OSGATA et al. appeals the case to the United States Supreme Court.