Heirlooms are Obsolete

posted in: Syndicated | 51

“Heirlooms were varieties that were so unsuccessful that they wouldn’t be sold today…

Every product declines until it’s replaced by new heirlooms.”

The backlash was inevitable.

What are heirlooms? A 1949 article in the New York Times defined them as “open pollinated varieties [i.e. genetically stable lines, not F1 hybrids] that are more than 50 years old and have been handed down through generations.” It fits the modern technical definition – but not the contemporary consumer’s expectation for a primary focus on taste.

Plant breeding is an always ongoing process. Breeders grow out their core collection of genotypes every year, cross them and collect seeds from the best individuals. Occasionally new genotypes with new properties are added to the mix, but for the most part a breeding program is a conveyer belt that continuously improves the quality and performance of a given crop.

People in the past never viewed their crops as perfect – they were always trying to improve their favorite varieties, whether to get better production, to fit changing fashions, or to excel in new environments. As voiced in the above article, “A 1902 cabbage by Burpee was a perfectly good cabbage by 1902 standards… But none of our ancestors ever viewed these things as done. You never stopped breeding your livestock. You never stopped selecting your cabbage.” People tend to lock onto the idea that older varieties tasted better while forgetting that, even when taste was excellent,* reliable performance in the garden was often not.

In light of inevitable reality, the executive director of Seed Savers suggests that the term “heirloom” include all of the following:
  1. Family legacies – e.g. some special plant rediscovered growing in someone’s garden
  2. Old (obsolete) market varieties – e.g. the Danvers carrot and Rutgers tomato**
  3. Modern heirlooms – e.g. the sugar snap pea, developed by a vegetable breeder in the 1970s
  4. Mystery heirlooms – e.g. varieties that have been preserved by farmers and gardeners
Ultimately, the age of the variety doesn’t really matter. Gardeners who understand value heirlooms for their diversity and the invitation to participate in the ownership and future of agriculture and self-sufficiency. I’d like to see potential amateur plant breeders out there shift their thoughts on heirlooms from the past to the future. As said in the article: “The great bank of heirloom seeds is ripe for fresh creations and practical improvements.”

There’s a place for celebrating classic technologies (and crop varieties), but I’m more interested in seeing people move beyond a fixation on an overly idealized past to create their own future.

h/t: Plant Breeding News (3/2011)

* One Dutch friend told me that, contrary to the popular perception that foods were better during our youth, the tomatoes he grew up with were huge and red – but watery and tasteless. Commercial tomatoes available in the Netherlands today are much tastier.
** The Rutgers tomato, released in the 1930s, was one of the earliest mass-market tomato varieties. It was bred largely as a processing tomato (i.e. paste and ketchup, not fresh eating). It’s ironic that the same people who turn their noses up at modern commercial varieties would embrace an obsolete version of the same thing. 

Follow Matt DiLeo:

Engineering without transgenes, occasionally writing at The Scientist Gardener