By Kira Hamman
Let’s get this cleared up right now: the late blight is not the fault of the tomatoes, heirloom or hybrid.
Nor is it the fault of the home gardeners who are trying to distance themselves, even just a little, from the corporate food grid.
It’s not the fault of potatoes, or the recession, or Michelle Obama.
And it’s only kind of the fault of the big box plant brokers who sold the infected plants.
No, the bulk of the blame for the epidemic of late blight this growing season belongs squarely where the blame for epidemics nearly always belongs: Mama Nature. We had a cool, wet spring and early summer, and the blight just loved it. Hey, it happens.
It’s all part of a little process called natural selection, which is the reason that the entire planet doesn’t get wiped out every time someone gets a cold. Or the flu. Or even H-something N-whatever. Disease affects susceptible organisms. As long as there is sufficient genetic diversity to ensure the existence of some non-susceptible organisms, everything works out just fine. Mama’s been doing it this way for, oh, about three billion years.
The trouble arises when there is not sufficient genetic diversity, and all the organisms of a certain type get wiped out. This is what happened in Ireland in 1845, and tragedy followed. Had the Irish been growing many different varieties of potato, it is very likely that we would never have heard of an Irish potato famine. Of course, we might never have heard of the Kennedys, either, and that would be a tragedy of a different sort. But I’m here about biology, not history.
Partly because tomatoes will never be the cash cow that, say, corn is or soybeans are, and partly because of the efforts of genetic preservationists such as Seed Savers Exchange, there is a fair amount of genetic diversity among the tomatoes grown in this country. This is our saving grace.
Not all the tomatoes will get the blight, and not all those that get it will die, and tomorrow, as they say, is another day. Far from blaming home gardeners and their heirloom tomato plants, we should rejoice that the resurgence of interest in gardening and in growing heirloom varieties means that we have more tomatoes, and more types of tomatoes, growing in gardens than we did ten years ago. Ultimately, this can only be a good thing.
Of course, this blight is far more widespread than Mama intended, and that part is indeed the fault of the big box plant brokers whose infected plants spread the blight up and down the Eastern seaboard. As Dan Barber points out in his op-ed in the New York Times, buying a tomato seedling that’s been trucked 2000 miles is not all that different from buying a tomato that’s been trucked 2000 miles. Grow your own, or buy locally, and things like regional or national blight epidemics become much less likely.
But let’s place the blame where it’s due, OK?