By Vanessa Richins
I was puzzled by an article I came across from Scientific American called, “How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case against Heirloom Tomatoes”.
The article asserts that because of breeding over time, “Heirlooms are the tomato equivalent of the pug–that “purebred” dog with the convoluted nose that snorts and hacks when it tries to catch a breath,” and calls them “feeble and inbred.”
It claims that over time, humans have bred out disease resistance in the quest for bigger and better tasting heirloom tomatoes. They also assert that the flavor comes because heirlooms sometimes only produce 2 tomatoes, which naturally means that those two will have more flavor and size than a hybrid producing many fruits.
While there may be a few heirlooms that set only 2 tomatoes, there are hundreds of other varieties that are quite prolific. There are also many that still have disease resistance.
There were several other strange statements in the article. A Green Zebra is named as an heirloom variety, when it is in fact a hybrid that was introduced by Tom Wagner in his Tater-Mater Seed Catalog. Beefsteak, cherry and plum are named as examples of hybrids, when those terms really refer to the size/shape of a tomato and can be either hybrid or heirloom.
Several sentences have a notation that the online version was altered since publication, and the comments seem to indicate that the original version said hybrid seeds were sterile. While they don’t stay true to type, they will, for the most part, germinate after all. With basic inaccuracies like these, it makes one question the rest of the claims of the article.
Are hybrids really the only answer anyways? At least for commercial growing, the overall focus has been more on shipping and storage of hybrids, with flavor a secondary concern. All we need to do is focus on identifying the heirlooms that show exceptional disease resistance and fruit set. They can be used in conventional breeding programs to bring back better disease resistance.
Read the article for yourself – what do you think of “feeble and inbred” heirloom tomatoes?