Saturday, January 30, 2010

Heirloom Rebuttal: Part 3

"So breeders feel confident that getting germ-beating genes back into heirlooms won't harm the desirable aspects of the fruit. Modern breeding has resuscitated grocery store tomatoes with an influx of wild genes; in the past 50 years, researchers have bred back some 40 disease-resistance genes into commercial crops.
Restoring Heirloom's Health
Now, Monsanto wants to do the same for the heirloom. In 1996 a tomato breeder and former Tanksley student named Doug Heath began a pet project at Seminis VegetableSeeds, a Monsanto subsidiary. After 12 years of traditional breeding with the help of molecular markers, he has created a new rainbow-streaked tomato less prone to cracking and also endowed with 12 disease-resistant genes. The original plant, Heath explains, had defective flowers, which is one reason why it set only two fruits compared with the 30 he gets from his new variety. He claims he is also able to maintain a comparable flavor and sugar profile even on productive plants. It turns out that the heirloom's defects are neither quirky nor cute, just an accident of a single-pronged breeding strategy left over from the dawn of genetics."
[The article goes on to point out that these seeds being created will produce plants that will NOT be able to produce viable seed]

I'm going to cut to the chase right now.

Explain to me how these will be genetically superior if they cannot reproduce without proprietary methods/hybridization?

You can't tell me out of one side of your proverbial mouth that natural selection has taken care of the Andes forebears of tomatoes and how wonderful that is. AND, tell me that stupid humans have done a nice job of hybridizing genetic disease resistance out of them. Then, out of the other side of your mouth, you tell me that humans, using only genetics in a profit making framework, are going to save the day? And, you'll do that by removing the natural reproductive method for these plants that will allow for natural selection to take place. You also can't tell me that more fruit per plant = less taste and then herald more fruit per plant as solving a problem.

Ok, maybe you can. But, it just makes me angry that things are misrepresented to make the point. I only hope that I've done a better job of trying to make my point without taking this approach!

The motivations are consistent, but the claims are not. The motivation is to produce more marketable fruit - period. If there is growing demand for heirlooms, then commercially one tends to look for ways to grow more of them.

I want to avoid sounding too much like I'm irrational in defense of heirlooms. There are issues with them. In fact, if I wanted to maximize my tomato production to simply meet demand for that product, I might look for different answers. But, I don't - and I'll tell people why every so often when I get on the soapbox.

So, why am I rabid enough about the topic to place a three-part response in a blog no one reads? It's because I think the focus on this area is, perhaps, attacking the WRONG PROBLEMS.

  • We need to focus on the health of the soil and environs in which these things grow. Regardless of seed stock, it will improve long term reliable production.
  • We need to get away from monoculture cropping methods and improve our rotation and inter cropping methods. Plants need more disease resistance if we keep making conditions better for diseases to inoculate in the crops. But, if we work on improving conditions... Think of it this way - this logic has some similarity to taking antibiotics every day because we want to protect ourselves from the pathogens in the sewer backup that we refuse to take care of in our basement. If you do nothing to build a healthy environment, then - of course - you may have to rely on the medicine.
  • We need to work on building local food systems that use sustainable methods in agriculture.
  • We need to improve "everyperson's" understanding of how to prepare food using fresh vegetables. Increasing disease resistance for mass-production of product does nothing to help people figure out how to use produce. And, until we increase our collective IQ (or return it to what it once was) the problem will persist.
Monsanto (or someone else) will figure out how to manipulate genes to grow heirloom look-alikes. They will likely produce more marketable tomatoes per plant in large-scale, monocrop systems. But, they WILL market them as heirlooms and MANY WILL buy them because of the label. But, this does not remove or address the issues of soil health, monocropping issues, unripe picking for long distance shipping nor does it address our collective inability to pay attention to our food.

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