Heirloom vs Hybrid

There are some estimates that fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes have become so wildly popular over store-bought-ethanol-gas-ripened ones, that tomato plants are now grown in 9 out of 10 gardens in America. I tested the theory by using the line ‘do you have a garden?’ followed by ‘do you grow your own tomatoes?’ as a conversation stimulator when I met somebody new and I can tell you, 9 out of 10 times, a lengthy tomato discussion ensued. Tomato varieties, pest control (dratted hornworms), where they are planted in the garden, and what sympathetic plants are planted nearby were eagerly shared–people are passionate I tell you! It makes me smile inside.


On several occasions we have ended up on the ‘heirloom vs hybrid’ debate and I want to tell you, the middle ground is a very narrow path. Heirlooms are open pollinated plants, in other words, they are pollinated naturally by bees, they produce a very stable seed, so you can save the seeds from each heirloom plant to grow again next year. How a seed gets to become an heirloom seed is up for debate. Some people say the plant has to have been open pollinated for at least 100 years, other people say 50 years. Then there is a rather arbitrary date thrown in, 1945 – if your tomatoes have been open pollinated since 1945, you have an heirloom plant.

heir·loom /ˈe(ə)rˌlo͞om/ Noun: A valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations.

Actually, 1945 is not that arbitrary, it marks the end of WWII and the beginning of industrial agriculture and thus seed experimentation. Hybrid plants are not bad, they are not genetically modified in a lab, they are just pollinated by hand, with intent. Size, durability, disease, color, geography, season, flavor are all considered, and pollen from one tomato plant is used to encourage a specific quality in another type of tomato plant.  Hybrid seeds are not considered stable, so you have to buy new seeds each year instead of saving them, because unlike the heirlooms you can’t be sure that a throwback gene won’t rear its head, so you are not guaranteed to grow the same tomatoes as last year if you do save the seeds.

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So knowing this, can hybrid seeds be organic? The answer is yes. Seeds from cross pollinated hybrids can be planted and grown according to organic practices for an organic crop. There is a difference after all between ‘genetically modified’ and hybrid.  Genetic modification refers to a process wherein the genes of a plant are altered un-naturally in a way that wouldn’t occur in nature, often with the introduction of an entirely different species, and organic labels do not permit the use of GMO seeds.  Hybrids are really cross pollinated plants, however seed companies do it with precision to control the outcome, and will also do it over generations of the plant to get a little more of this, and a little less of that. So hybrid seeds are accepted under organic guidelines (provided they come from plants that were raised organically). The down side is that hybrid plants can be genetically sterile, since what they are exposed to pollen-wise is, well, very limited. Heirloom varieties that are open pollinated are much more genetically diverse, which makes them safer in the long term.

I think hybrid vs heirloom is a personal decision. For me, food is a very intimate thing, dinner tables, friends, family, meal times, breaking bread–it is romantic, it is about connection, conversation, sharing and yes, tradition. In my mind, what is more appropriate for the table than an heirloom tomato, steeped in tradition, hand selected generation after generation to give us the best–it is a gift.

by Pam Denholm, South Shore Organics


About eSS&SC

The South Shore and South Coast has been home to hunting, gathering, fishing, farming––and great eating––for over 10,000 years. We are committed to identifying, devouring, and sharing all that Southeastern Massachusetts has to offer today and preserving local options for future generations.
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