The second annual National Heirloom Exposition took place in Santa Rosa on September 10-12. It was a celebration of the imperfect, the unexpected, and many people attending it learned that sometimes the most blemished fruit has the sweetest flavor. There were squash with warts, spiky cucumbers and “Cannibal” tomatoes. A display showed off Hopi Blue corn, Rainbow Inca corn, and Seneca Blue Bear Dance corn. Genetically modified corn, well, it was not welcome at the table.
If fact, GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) were enemy #1 at the Heirloom Expo and Proposition 37, which would require food manufacturers to label all foods with genetically modified ingredients on this November’s ballot, was a much talked about issue. An organizer of the festival and manager of The Petaluma Seed Bank, Paul Wallace told me:
"Heirlooms have been here since the beginning of time. Anyone can take one of these seeds, plant it, and grow food. But not with GMOs. These companies have patented nature and cut us off from growing our own food. Genetically modified foods have only been around a few decades. We still don’t know if it could cause health problems. If people want to eat GMO food, that should be an informed choice."
Heirlooms predate 1950, when hybrid plants first started to be used widely by industrial farms. Heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means that birds, bees, wind, and other forces of nature help with their breeding process. They can be traded at seed swaps, or saved and stored from year to year. They tend to be considered costlier for commercial farmers, as some may have smaller yields or can be too delicate for shipping. This is why they are often grown by boutique, organic farms, and cost more in the stores, but are a favorite among backyard gardeners.
By crossing two or more varieties of heirlooms, plant breeders, farmers and gardeners can search for their version of the perfect tomato. Fred Hempel, owner of Baia Nicchia, is an organic farmer and plant breeder. He has been working with the company Seeds of Change along with chefs around the San Francisco Bay area to develop varietals, like the Blush tomato. He explained that these are not hybrids, but actually “heritage” tomatoes. “These have all of the traits one expects in an heirloom,“ said Fred Hempel said. “They are open pollinated, their offspring will be very similar to them, but they are not 50 years old.”
In fact, some tomatoes people commonly refer to as “heirloom” are also heritage, like the Green Zebra. This was developed by Tom Wagner of Everett Washington by crossing the genes of four different heirloom tomatoes. He introduced it in 1983, and so in spirit these might be heirlooms, but really, they are as he calls them, “Heritage.” The Indigo Rose, or blue tomato was recently bred by Jim Meyers and graduates students at Oregon State University. They crossed wild tomatoes with domestic ones and came up with blue-hued beauties that have the nutrients of regular tomatoes, along with anthocyanins, which also produce the healthy pigments in red wine and blueberries.
Indigo Rose, Blush and Green Zebra were NOT genetically engineered; rather, they were created through classical plant breeding techniques, which often means crossing wild and domesticated plants for genetic diversity. This is important, as then this diversity allows for a greater range of adaptation, especially when climate change is an issue. This can take years of work, and lots of uncertainty, as growers are working with the perimeters of nature and can’t control which genes are precisely passed down to the offspring. So there may be a year of mishaps, feral cousins, and then honing in for generations on the perfect tomato. Currently, Blush, Indigo Rose and Green Zebra seeds are for sale, and can be grown by home gardeners. Over time, they may be introduced into the pantheon of heirlooms.
Many of the tomatoes seen in grocery stores are hybrids, which means that they are genetically 50 percent each parent plant, one generation old, and though it’s possible to save the seeds and plant them, the offspring probably won’t taste as good. Many of these have been bred to look like a “perfect” tomato and have a long shelf life, but often lose flavor. The parents are often trade secrets, so farmers have to keep coming back and buying seeds. Since many have been bred for cosmetic purposes, how they taste is far less important. In fact, a recent study in Science Magazine explains that by breeding the dark green spots out of tomatoes, they in fact have less sugar and flavor.
But don’t confuse hybrids with genetically modifying a plant. Genetically engineering, or modifying means that breeders select specific traits that they want in a tomato, and insert the genes that will code those traits into the plant. The gene does not have to be from the same species. The original goal of these was to reduce diseases in crops and create greater output. This seemed like a great idea.
However, many countries have come out against the use of GMOs in food production and agriculture because they felt there were unacceptable risks to the environment and human health. These countries also considered GMOs unfair to farmers and unsustainable. While genetically modified tomatoes did appear in 1994, they disappeared just four years later. Very few food items we might find in the produce department are genetically modified. The most common genetically modified crops are corn and soybeans and these are used in processed foods and fed to livestock on industrial farms.
Over time, the company Monsanto has become almost synonymous with GMO, and the plants they have genetically manipulated are their intellectual property. They are usually not available to home gardeners, and when grown by farmers, it is illegal for them to save seeds to plant again. In fact, if seeds from a neighboring farm or backyard garden cross-pollinate with your crop, Monsanto can charge you for patent infringement. One of the most famous cases brought against a farmer by Monsanto is the case of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser who was sued by Monsanto. Listen to his story.
This November, the rest of the country will be watching California as we vote on Proposition 37, to decide if Genetically Engineered (GE) food products should be labeled. Right now, the organic farmers are considered the Davids against the corporate Goliaths. But the mood at the Heirloom Expo was optimistic.