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Beyond the Rows is a Monsanto Company blog focused on one of the world’s most important industries, agriculture. Monsanto employees write about Monsanto’s business, the agriculture industry, and the farmer.
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Hybrids vs. Heirlooms

If there is something good to come out of the Internet chatter on Monsanto’s donation of hybrid seed to Haiti, then perhaps it is this: More discussion and explanation of the difference between heirloom and hybrid seeds.

George Ball wrote a guest column for the Des Moines Register called “A Juicy Debate: Hybrids vs. Heirlooms.” Ball is a past president of The American Horticultural Society and chairman of the W. Atlee Burpee & Co.–well known for the line of Burpee Seeds sold in big box stores around the country. Fair disclosure: Monsanto sells some of its Seminis brand of hybrid vegetables through Burpee.

Ball explains better than I did the difference between heirlooms and hybrids and fairly credits the benefits and deficiencies of both (taste/ancestry/uniqueness vs. hardiness/yield/also taste) while passing no judgment on gardeners’ choices.

Like a proud father (Ball notes his company does 50/50 business in both hybrid and heirloom), Ball does not allow us to choose one at the detriment of the other. Instead he says “it’s time for gardeners to stop slinging mulch and return to the pleasures and rewards of gardening. There’s plenty of room in the vegetable patch for both heirlooms and hybrids.”

More Information

Hybrids and Heirlooms – University of Illinois Extension Service

Hybrids, Heirlooms and Open-Pollinated Crops (includes video) – University of Arkansas

1 Responses to "Hybrids vs. Heirlooms"

  1. One thing I would also mention is that it seems you often hear of heirlooms as being ‘natural’ alternatives to ‘unnatural’ hybrids/GMOs (or at least, heirlooms often find themselves prized by those who hold naturalistic beliefs), but would not heirlooms be more so? A line bred with itself until the instability, the characteristic ability of life to change, has been bred out? Not that appeals to nature mean much, but if we’re going to go by that, I would say heirlooms are pretty unnatural.

    That said, everything I’ve planted this year was heirloom, save the Ruby Queen corn. I think it is nice to truly have and be able to grow the same line year after year (as opposed to relying on someone else to sell it next season), and to grow the more unique varieties that you just don’t see used in hybridization too often, such as white watermelons like Cream of Saskatchewan, blue sweet corn like Blue Jade, purple & orange carrots like Dragon, or bicolor beans like Dragon’s Tongue. If you head over to someplace like Baker Creek seeds, while the anti-science rhetoric in their catalog annoys me to no end (they even sell Jeffery Smith’s books), you can see some really neat heirlooms with traits that you just don’t typically see incorporated into hybrids. Of course, I’m not going to claim that has anything to do with hybridization techniques themselves or deny the benefits or hybrids or say that farmers should convert to an all heirloom crop or anything like that. I just like things that are different & diverse and that I know will always be there, even if my Organgeglo is inferior to a, say, Sorbet Swirl.

    I’ve always thought that heirlooms would be great candidates for use in genetic engineering, either by inserting genes into the heirlooms, or by using their genes in cisgenic modification. They do posses unique genetic traits that I think should not be viewed as mere novelties, but as the building blocks of tomorrows varieties. This may be particularly true of farmers in developing countries who might not always have access to hybrid lines. Would not such a genetically modified stable heirloom be ideal in that situation, one suited for the local conditions, boosted by biotechnology? Unfortunately, very few (none, actually) of the heirloom enthusiasts I’ve encountered particularly cared for such ideas, in fact, they tend to be vehemently against the concept (several dishing out insults [which were fairly anti-scientific in nature] and accusations of being paid to say stuff by, naturally, you guys), so I would say that it does seem like there is indeed a bit of dogmatism there among the heirloom growers. When they see this article, I doubt it will change too many minds, and will likely only serve to reinforce ideology, as opposition to a belief will often do.

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