Saturday, February 6, 2010

What is it about heritage seeds?

Or as you would say in North America – heirloom seeds?
I’ve just been on a British radio show – The Food Programme – the tone was set by a recording taken at heritage seed swap and ended up with a recording of my fellow interviewee collecting traditional varieties in India (chap called Geoff Tansey - nice enough guy, I'm just glad he's no-one's Minister of Ag.) . I can’t help feeling I had been shipped in to provide a kind of scapegoat. Scowls from the presenter made me realise that my suggestion that modern vegetable and crop seed varieties are better was definitely 'a failure to tow the party line’.
It can be fun growing heritage varieties, the feeling that you are growing something that people grew a hundred or so years ago. But I have never been very convinced that they are in any way better than modern ones – I mean if the old ones are so good, why aren’t we still growing them?  The fact that they taste better is often given as a reason for growing old-fashioned vegetables. Not in my experience. Sometimes quite the opposite. I once grew ‘Nero de Toscana’ kale, now a very trendy plant amongst heritage veg growers. Its tough leathery leaves were greatly inferior to any other kale I’ve ever grown, old or new. I have tried some of the blue/purple potatoes currently being touted in vegetable catalogues; they have a distinct flavour all right –  ‘astringent’ was the first word that came to my mind, ‘horrible’ was another I heard around the dinner table.

Preserving genetic diversity is often advanced as a reason for us to grow heritage veg. Diversity is important for the  breeder, and it is vital that old varieties are preserved in (publicly-owned)seed banks and research stations, so that their genes are available to future breeders. But diversity per se is not of much use to the gardener at home. Far more important are factors such ease of growth, productivity and disease resistance. For these, modern varieties nearly always win hands down. The reason so many old varieties have died out is simply that people have stopped growing them because more recently bred ones  were better.

            ‘F1’ varieties are particularly despised by the vegetable luddites. They are the result of two very distinct varieties being combined,  in order to produce plants which bring together good growing qualities and uniformity. Nearly all are produced for commercial growers, which can sometimes be a disadvantage; having peas or broccoli which all produce at once is very useful for a farmer who wants to harvest a whole field at once, but not much good for us, who want to harvest over a period. However with vegetables which are harvested over many months: carrots, leeks, cabbages, etc. F1 hybrids have huge advantages. Particularly for gardeners with small plots, who need consistently vigorous, predictable, healthy and high-yielding  plants – which is just what F1s give you.

            It is something of an irony that many of the people most interested in heritage veg are organic, but then logic has never been a part of the organic philosophy. Much of the thrust of modern plant breeding is towards the production of pest and disease resistant varieties, which minimise or eliminate the need for pesticides. Amongst the varieties recently made available to British gardeners are carrot-fly resistant carrots ‘Resistafly F1  and ‘Flyaway F1’, and blight-resistant tomato ‘Fernline F1’.

            The future in the veg plot could be really exciting, especially if we drop our ill-founded suspicion of genetically-modified crops. Who knows what the future may hold: Chinese cabbage which won’t bolt, aubergines you can grow outside in the Welsh border, really tasty high vitamin tomatoes, even hardy rice?

No comments: