Out with the new and in with the old

It is no secret that I tend to favour old varieties of fruit and vegetables, many of which have been around for hundreds of years. They hail from a time when breeding was not concerned unduly with shelf life, robustness for transport, uniformity, suitability for mechanical harvesting, and other rather meaningless traits as far as the kitchen garden is concerned. Naturally, they were selected for traits pertaining to robustness and yield, but flavour, texture, and other characteristics of great interest to the cook and the kitchen gardener were, in my view, far more likely to be prioritised than now. I must admit that I am rather sceptical concerning the motivations behind much of modern plant breeding. I thought it was about time I explained my preference for open pollinated varieties rather than modern F1 hybrids.

It is important to state, at this point, that there is nothing inherently wrong – or, perhaps, not too much, anyway – with F1 hybrids. It is not at all like the situation with GM crops, where the genetic material is not produced through natural processes. I am completely against GM crops, in both principle and practice. One can find plenty of evidence for the foolishness of developing and growing GM varieties, but that is not the topic of this article.

F1 hybrids are the result of the first crossing of two parent strains. The parent strains are inbred for a number of generations until they breed consistently for the traits of interest. The inbreeding is needed to ensure that the genes that determine the traits of interest are identical – termed homozygous – amongst members of the parent strains. A crossing of these inbred parents results in an offspring with consistent properties, as the genetic makeup of the offspring is determined by dominance; that is, for each gene, the dominant gene from the parent strains is expressed in the offspring. The purported benefits of hybrids come from the predictable recombination of the parent traits. The parent strains themselves may be less useful, perhaps lacking vigour or being poor with respect to other desirable traits. The crossing, though, can combine the good properties of the parents and produce useful results. Whilst it is generally true that whatever varieties we grow are hybrids of a sort, the natural, or even selective, crossings of open pollinated sorts are quite different from producing an F1 hybrid, which relies on the maintenance of the two heavily inbred parent strains. This becomes even more clear if one explores some of the mechanisms used in the production of seed; for example, to ensure that the parent lines do not self pollinate, where chemicals not otherwise associated with cultivation may be used.

Seed saved from F1 hybrids does not breed true. The second generation will be a mix of characteristics; none will be the same as the first crossing; some might be useful, but many can be poor. In order to develop something useful from this, a number of generations of selection and further breeding would be needed in the same way that an open pollinated strain is developed. For this reason it is not normal to save seed from hybrid varieties. Therein lies the first objection. Although I am not much of a seed saver, with open pollinated sorts I have the option of saving seed. More, though, open pollinated varieties are more variable and one can select from the most successful plants to develop a strain that suits the local soil and climatic conditions.

F1 hybrids show little variability. This might be advantageous for commercial growers who benefit from consistency, for example, in harvest times. The kitchen gardener, though, is not interested in harvesting an entire crop at one time. In fact, the variability of open pollinated varieties is, in my view, more of an advantage to the home grower than a disadvantage. One argument used in favour of F1 hybrids is so called hybrid vigour. Inbred strains might become rather weak as the bad as well as good traits become fixed. Crossing out inbred lines may very well result in much improved vigour. However, hybrid vigour can be, to my mind, rather misleading. It depends what one is comparing; the hybrid may well be more vigorous than some sickly inbred strain, but is it really markedly better than a good open pollinated variety? To be honest, I have yet to find a case where I am even remotely concerned by the vigour of the open pollinated sorts I have grown. In fact, only three hybrid plants have performed notably well for me: tomato Sun Gold, sweetcorn Lark, and winter squash Crown Prince. Certainly, though, for the tomato and squash, although they produce good yields of good fruits, I would certainly not consider that they are any more vigorous than the open pollinated varieties we have grown. For sweetcorn, there are good reasons for selecting hybrid seed, as these varieties offer improvements in sweetness and storage properties. This year is the first time we are trying an open pollinated sweetcorn. The seed is a little hard to come by as none of the mainstream seed merchants offer anything other than hybrids.

The availability of seed is, then, my second objection. The production of hybrid seed often takes place at the expense of open pollinated varieties, many of which are of historical interest as well as excellent garden varieties full of character. One is at the mercy of the seed merchants as to the availability of varieties. Over the last fifty years or so there has been a huge loss of vegetable varieties, thanks partly to ludicrous legislation, which is both tragic and short sighted as far as future breeding is concerned. The mainstream seed merchants have dropped so many open pollinated varieties and replaced them with an array of hybrids. I just find them to be generally uninspiring and I have no inclination to grow them. The availability of a given hybrid depends entirely on the producer. If they develop something they consider to be an improvement, they have no reason to continue to maintain the parent strains.

Saving open pollinated seed is a relatively simple matter, although isolation is often needed to prevent cross pollination. It is straight forward to produce a large quantity of seed with little effort. F1 seed is clearly a little more complicated. However, seed merchants benefit greatly from producing hybrids, as their seed cannot be saved and must be bought fresh each year, and seed packets for the home gardener are often expensive for very little seed. This is my third objection. Take, for example, one of the mainstream seed merchants, Suttons, and compare the cost, at the time of writing, of tomato Gardener’s Delight at £2.35 for 75 seeds with Sun Gold F1 at £2.99 for 10 seeds, or Marmande at £1.89 for 120 seeds with Shirley F1 at £4.75 for 20 seeds. The hybrid seed in these examples is more than an order of magnitude more expensive. Gardener’s Delight and Marmande are also both superb varieties. Thompson and Morgan – a merchant that I really do not recommend at all – win the prize for outrageously priced tomatoes with one packet of hybrid tomato seed at £3.99 for 6 seeds and several others at £3.69 for 6 seeds. This pattern is also true of other vegetables. Consider the summer cabbages, for example, again from Suttons: Greyhound at £1.55 for 350 seeds, Golden Acre at £1.55 for 250 seeds, Minicole F1 at £3.69 for 70 seeds, and Kilaxy F1 at £2.99 for 40 seeds. I find it hard to justify the cost of F1 seed. Hybrids might benefit the producer, but it does not help the gardener when an open pollinated alternative would be so much better value for money. There certainly is not a commensurate improvement in performance with the hybrid seed.

A further concern revolves around the goals of contemporary breeding programmes. Organic gardening is still very much in the minority, and we are otherwise in a time of intensive, chemical heavy, farming, dominance of supermarkets, international shipping of fruits and vegetables, and so on. Although there are potential improvements one can make in disease resistance that might help in an organic environment, and perhaps increases in yield, other characteristics pertaining to robustness to the rigours of shipping, shelf life, mechanical harvesting, and so on, may take precedence over culinary properties such as flavour and texture. Anyone that grows their own fruits and vegetables will be well aware that fresh home grown produce is often noticeably better than anything one can buy from the supermarket or greengrocer. With some crops – tomatoes, potatoes, and carrots, for example – the difference can be very marked indeed. Varieties developed with the commercial grower, and perhaps also a chemical regime, in mind are not what I want to grow in my kitchen garden. I am also not obsessed with yield. The varieties I grow all yield well, but whether some hybrid variety might provide some improved yield is really not of concern to me. I have yet to observe hybrids outperforming good open pollinated varieties, but then I have not explored this in a scientific manner. In any event, I am more than satisfied with robustness and yields. I am much more concerned with growing interesting varieties that produce great tasting fruit and vegetables. Robustness to shipping and shelf life are not of much interest, as I harvest what I need on the day I need it.

Contrary, I suspect, to many opinions on the subject, I rather think that open pollinated varieties offer the home gardener some advantages, whether from seed saving or from some variability that leads, for example, to a better spread of harvests and the potential to adapt to local conditions. Old varieties, all of which are open pollinated, are often of historical interest and have a certain character about them that I find lacking in new varieties. My dad likes to point out that even these old varieties were new once. That is, of course, quite true, but then the environment was different. One can go back to a time when agriculture was less intensive, food was more local, and crops were grown in soils fed with organic matter rather than synthetic fertilisers. The varieties that I grow here seem entirely at home in my soil, maintained with composts and manures, and grown without herbicides, synthetic fertilisers, and anything but natural pesticides. Given the great vegetables that we have been enjoying from traditional open pollinated varieties, I struggle to see how I could be tempted to replace them with what seem, to me, rather bland modern sorts.

As I said above, there is nothing necessarily wrong with an F1 hybrid, they are just not what I want to grow. However, more recent developments in plant breeding are wrong in so many ways: genetic modification, with its attendant false and arrogant assumption that science has garnered enough understanding to undertake such things safely, herbicide tolerant crops, terminator genes, and genes that render the crops toxic to pests. Intensive farming is bad enough, with the ruination of the soils and increasing reliance on synthetic fertilisers, and produce contaminated with residual pesticides, but where GM seed has been deployed there appears to be plenty of evidence building to show just how foolish it is. This is a topic for another day, but I do wonder, though, whether there might be a sense of a slippery slope here. If one discards the traditional open pollinated varieties and prefers F1 hybrids, then why not make the next step and short cut the process by making direct genetic modification instead of investing in a long breeding programme? I would prefer it if the home gardener were offered a real choice, but in many cases, the mainstream seed merchants offer a poor selection of open pollinated sorts and an increasing proportion of hybrids. One has to search around for a good selection, particular with things like tomatoes and peppers where the range generally offered is quite poor. Some varieties that are, to my mind, great garden varieties, are becoming hard to find. Control of food production, which begins with the propagation of seed, is big business, and I do not like the way in which our horticultural heritage is being carelessly discarded whilst industrial concerns attempt to exert increasing control over production. We have lost so much already, and there may yet come a time when the traditional varieties are no longer available.

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