from sky to seed

The Tasty Tomato: Heirlooms, Hybrids, and GMOs

Just a few of the many heirloom tomato seed packets in my personal stock for this year’s growing season.

Jon’s mother absolutely adores watermelon. When she was young, he says, she kept fresh, whole watermelons in the sink and devoured them daily, the juice running down her wrists.

These days, watermelon is available year-round at American grocery stores (thank you, industrialized food industry!). It’s a no-brainer that the way to my boyfriend’s mother’s heart is in the pink flesh of that fruit. Once a week, I bring her a watermelon, and she’s as happy as Marie Antoinette with her cakes. We eat them salted, Midwestern-style.

She loves them.

But I hardly taste anything at all.

Which makes me wonder, what is she really tasting?

Nostalgia, I guess. It hardly matters what the watermelon tastes like, so long as it’s palatable. She expects the taste of the watermelons of years past, and that’s exactly what she gets.

Food can conjure up all kinds of feel-good memories and emotions. Hersheys? Childhood. Burgers on the barbecue? Summer. Egg nog? Merry Christmas.

Here in Missouri, the currency of nostalgia seems to be tomatoes. I have to admit, I’m not a big fan. Maybe I’ve never had a decent one. Growing up, my vegetables came from glossy grocery stores, and (hybrid) tomatoes were perfectly sized, round, unblemished, and utterly watery and tasteless.

Last summer, Jon bought and planted hybrid tomatoes.  They were vigorous and bright, but the flavor and texture failed to convince me to join the tomato fan club.

I haven’t given up on the vegetable just yet. When I was at Baker Creek yesterday, the tomato section completely seduced me. There were just… so many! I ended up buying, oh, sixteen or so packages. I so desperately want to believe in the power of a home-grown tomato, and I think that the secret to that power lies in a non-hybrid.

I mentioned this to the friend that accompanied me yesterday, and she immediately jumped to the same town cry I heard over and over again last summer: That she didn’t understand why all of a sudden everyone was making such a big deal out of hybrids and GMOs when humans have been doing it for thousands of years and we’ve been just fine and whatnot.

This kind of logic makes my blood boil. For one thing, GMOs and hybrids are NOT the same.

But more than that, it makes me angry because it shows just how far the industrialized food industry has come in stifling consumer awareness of what goes into the stuff we eat, and why we should care.

Here’s a quick and dirty education introduction:

HEIRLOOMS (HERITAGE)

Heirloom or heritage plants come with a history. In layman’s terms, these are the plants your grandparents ate and passed on by saving the seeds. It never and still doesn’t come with a patent and wasn’t cooked up in a test-tube. Heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means that the sexy stuff from an individual plant’s “bits” meet and make babies thanks to wind, birds and bugs.

They’re a big buzz these days because those old-school seeds are rarer and rarer. Heirloom foodie fans swear up and down that they also taste better because, generally speaking, they haven’t been bred specifically for an idealized appearance, uniform size, shelf-life, or shipping durability.

Last summer, when I was still a coward, I merely tried to smile and look cute when I explained to people who asked, rather pointedly, why on earth I’d go through the trouble to plant a bunch of weird old plant varieties. “I love the way they look!” I’d say, and then go about my day and passive-aggressively take out my frustration on the weeds. But smiling and trying to be cute only gets you so far, and I’m past that point. My reasons for growing heirlooms are both political and taste-bud driven, and that’s that. However, I do love the way heirloom varieties look. I mean, why grow a carbon copy of the same boring old penis-shaped cucumbers available at Walmart when you can grow these instead? Behold, the mighty lemon cucumber:

Hybrids

Hybridization happens in nature, but hybrid plants that you can buy have been bred specifically by humans in pursuit of an ideal characteristic. This isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, we’ve been doing it ever since farming was invented because it helps us generate superior crops that (should) taste better and offer more resilience to pests and weather ups and downs.

My beef with store-bought hybrid fruits and vegetables is that they’ve often been bred to look nice, ship well, and last a long time, as well as grow fast, because the farmers growing them get more cash. (See how my euphemism for “big ag corporations” was “farmer”?) Unfortunately, taste is often sacrificed.

And if you’re a gardener, saving hybrid seeds is not recommended. You learned about Mendel and his peas in high school, right? Yeah. In short, you only have a 25 percent chance of getting the product that you want. Conveniently, that means you always need to buy new seeds every single time you want a new plant.

Also, some hybrids are patented because they’ve been genetically modified, and you’ll get thrown in the hooscal for replanting. Like this dude, Kem Ralph, who saved and planted some Monsanto seeds and spent four months behind bars and now owes Monsanto, a multi-billion dollar corporation, 1.8 million dollars.

Which brings me to…

GMOs

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Wrong.

You know how, reproductively speaking, “human + human = human,” and “cat + cat = cat,” but “human + cat = ugh… what?”

GMOs are the latter. Scientists armed with very good PR teams and lawyers mix the DNA of species that would never naturally mate on earth without their “helpful hand.” The thing they produce is called  “genetically engineered” or “genetically modified” (GM). Hence: GMO.

Monsanto proudly touts the “built-in insect pest control” in its biotech (GM) sweet corn as a godsend to pest-aggravated farmers because it lets them deliver local produce to consumers, and local is good, so this is no problemo, man.

But what does “built-in insect pest control” mean?

Monsanto answers this right on their website. It means that they inject the corn with genetic material from this crazy bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Furthermore, says Montanto, lots of organic farmers use Bt, too! Except they don’t isolate its genetic material and mix it up with their plants, but hey! That’s pretty much the same thing, right?

Don’t worry, says Monsanto. It’s safe to eat.

Just try to forget the fact that every bit of Monsanto corn carries genetic material from Bt. That means it doesn’t wash off in your salad spinner.

And according to Monsanto, “When ingested by a target insect, the protein produced by Bt destroys the insect by disturbing the digestive system.” The company says its safe for mammals and thus humans, except that all the test rats got cancer, and they’ve never tested it on humans anyhow because it’s oh-so-costly, and Bt has been found in our guts, kidneys, and blood, too.

So… GMOs creep me out, and if they don’t creep you out, too, well, you’re a braver soul than me.

I’m sticking to the heirlooms.


Sources:
Hybrid Seeds vs. GMOs
The Difference Between Open Pollinated Seeds, Hybrids and GMOs
Genetically Modified Organisms: How they are made, and why they aren’t labelled
Bt toxin found in human blood is not harmless
“Leaky Gut,” GMOs, and Why You Should Care
Bt Toxin Kills Human Kidney Cells
And, from Monsanto: Environmental Benefits of GM Sweet Corn

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