Posted on 03 May 2009 by

Scientific American Magazine Claims Heirloom Tomatoes are Feeble and Inbred

tomato3By 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?

No Responses to “Scientific American Magazine Claims Heirloom Tomatoes are Feeble and Inbred”

  1. Shibaguyz Says:

    Sounds to me like someone doesn’t like the hundreds of thousands of us that are growing our own heirloom varieties of tomatoes for ourselves rather than buy watered down, overly designed tomatoes from the big ag production lines.

    Feeble? No. The heirlooms that we have been VERY successful with are vigorous and even hardy. From 22 plants in our little space last year, we produced 800 pounds of tomatoes. These were all from heirlooms. Every one of our vines were extremely prolific and were still bearing fruit when we finally had to cut the vines down the week of Thanksgiving. Don’t talk to me about feeble heirlooms.

    If your vines are only producing a few fruits, you are, most likely, growing them in the wrong conditions for your climate. Or, you are just trying to produce MONSTER fruit rather than quality so the other fruit is sacrificed to this goal before they ripen. We have always found our vines to be great producers of wonderful fruits.

    In a few words. The report reeks of big ag.

  2. Lin Says:

    I have the feeling that Scientific American is going to find out how large the heirloom tomato lovers community is by the amount of mail they will be receiving.

    I grow tomatoes in Bangkok, Thailand in containers on the twelfth floor of a high rise condo. I began as a beginner gardener and most expats here say that growing any tomato is fruitless here (couldn’t resist the pun, sorry.) After four years of experimenting, I have found heirloom varieties that work well here. Some heirlooms work here even considering that my garden has evenings that are often above 85 degrees, no pollinators up high, high humidity and mind-blowing amounts of fungi and mealybugs.

    Scientific American’s Brendan Borrell and Monsanto are welcome to come to my balcony and see if they can do any better.

  3. deb Says:

    The hybrid heirloom debate has gone on and on forever. If you cross breed anything you get a hybrid. I am able and have saved green zebra seeds for years and every year I get yet another green zebra plant. Hybrid yes, save the seed and get the same plant yes. Maybe we should discuss open and closed pollunating rather than pedigree. I actually took a tomato growing course last spring where the “Professor” claimed the heirloom=looser. I guess he didn’t see my haul of ten varieties of heirloom and couple of new “hybrid” fruits last summer and fall. I had to ask the interweb for canning advice. Like the Shibaguyz said, sounds like an aggie article.

  4. our friend Ben Says:

    Gack, Vanessa! What do they think hybrids are if not inbred, the same crosses made over and over (and over and over). The argument about low heirloom productivity versus poor hybrid flavor has raged on ever since heirlooms became popular, and in both cases, it’s a gross overgeneralization. Some heirlooms are hugely prolific, one of the causes of their enduring fame (as in ‘Mortgage Lifter’); some hybrids are incredibly flavorful (as in ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes). My own feeling is, if you want to save your own seeds, make sure you choose only open-pollinated (usually heirloom) varieties. But if you want great tomatoes, choose the best heirlooms and hybrids for your purposes and climate and make the most of what’s available. I try not to get worked up unless someone’s either trying to discourage gardeners from growing heirlooms in general or suddenly patenting heirlooms so it’s illegal to save seed from them. There’s a special circle of Hell reserved for those folks.

  5. jerry lee Says:

    After reading the article In Sci Am, I get the impression that the researchers have lost their way. I grow “heirlooms” for their TASTE and not their beauty.If the research community can develope a tomato or two that has the taste of heirlooms, then I say “have at it” and give us home growers something to shout about. Quit peeing on the hands that feeds your livelihood by trying to downgrade the “heirloom” tomato. Make it a better tomato with the same taste qualities (500+ varieties). Good Luck!!

  6. Tory Says:

    They must be realizing that a ton of people are buying heirlooms- and it’s no wonder. I don’t think that the logic is correct on this argument.

  7. K Mueller Says:

    There are misrepresented facts even in your article as well.

    Such as Green Zebra being a hybrid. It is not. It is open pollinated. Whether or not it can be called a “heirllom” is open to the fact “heirloom” seems to have a floating definition.

    The point of the quote by Dr Tanksley in the original article was poorly stated and the jest of it is

    heirlooms have become genetically bottlenecked and are actually quite similar genetically – therefore there is not much genetic diversity within them and little chance at finding sources of disaese resistance compared to wild relatives.

    People went round and round about heirlooms having different colors and shapes but these variations are really the result of only about 10-20 genes. That is not that variable. That was the point missed.

  8. Vanessa Says:

    The whole Green Zebra thing is a bit fuzzy, sure.. but a widely accepted definition for true heirlooms is that it’s usually at least 50 years old. The Green Zebra was developed by a breeder working with 4 different varieties in the 80s. It may be open pollinated…but it’s not like a usual heirloom. Hybrid also means 2 or more things combined.

    And really… there are plenty with things like disease resistance still, for example. I think part of the problem I have is that they turn to gene manipulation artificially than through regular breeding. There are times when technology isn’t better. I didn’t miss any facts about it being highly variable due to tons of genes.

    I’ll wait until they’re done, since evidently they ” have to work backward, crossing tomato varieties and species in order to understand how various genes influence shape and size. Once isolated, Tanksley later inserts those genes into other tomato varieties to make his case with a dramatic transformation.”

    I just still think the author leaves out the facts about why hybrids aren’t always the darlings of those who actually enjoy eating a good tomato, too.

  9. Delynnr Says:

    The one thing that I know from my own personal experience is that my heirloom tomatoes TASTE better! I love that they look strange, don’t mind if they are not the best producers the tomato world has ever seen. If the plant preforms decently and produces a great tasting tomato I am all for it.

    I don’t even care if a tomato is a true heirloom or not – I just want to be able to save my own seeds and I adore the Green Zebras no matter their lineage. I’ll skip paying someone every year for hybrid seeds if I can help it.

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