The 2012 AAS winning Faerie Hybrid watermelon is one I will try this year. Image from the AAS
Why do mutts stay healthier and live longer? Why does hybrid sweet corn taste sweeter? Why do hybrid lilies have bigger flowers? Why do hybrid tomatoes exhibit more disease and pest resistant? The answer is hybrid vigor or heterosis (the tendency for a crossbred organism to have qualities superior to those of either parent), and for some reason it has developed a bad rap.
In the seed world, heterosis is nature's way of saying, "Mix up those genes!" Not all hybrids exhibit heterosis (some even exhibit outbreeding depressio
n), but those that do have a clear advantage in the field. This is one of the first things students learn in plant genetics class. So why do so many garden seed companies now advertise: "NO HYBRIDS! Hybrid-free seed! Only safe healthy seeds sold here." I'm not sure. Maybe it sells well, but logistically it makes no sense.
"There's no reason why consumers can't happily grow both home selected variants and expertly selected hybrids."
Heirlooms are touted as the more diverse alternative, but new hybrids are equally diverse and there's no reason why consumers can't happily grow both home selected variants and expertly selected hybrids. Anyway, "open pollinated" does not equal "non-hybrid" but instead means seed is a result of random cross- or self-fertilization. And many cultivated crops like tomatoes are not genetically diverse to begin with.
Either way, the bad press inspired me to make the case for garden variety hybrids, which is all gardening consumers can get. (GE seed is only available to farmers growing for big agriculture. Garden seed companies don't sell it and never have.)
Plant hybrids have been essential to us since the beginning. For thousands of
years farmers have intentionally or unintentionally used selection, hybridization, and in some cases heterosis, to push crops towards greater yields and more desirable fruits. Selection for bigger, better grains, fruits and flowers has led to apples, wheat, rice, tomatoes
and roses as we know them today, among other essential food crops. Without genetic mutation, selection and hybridization, we would not have broccoli, cauliflower
, or head cabbage (all human-made variants of Brassica oleracea
). Heterosis has even been key in the breeding of honeybee lines
"In many ways, hybrids are greener because they require less care."
When modern genetics came into being, contemporary plant breeders tapped into a good thing. Hybrids exhibiting heterosis naturally produce
higher yields, more nutritive crops, and tend to be naturally more
disease and pest resistant and resilient to environmental stresses, like heat and drought. In many ways, hybrid crops are greener because
they require less care and make organic gardening more productive and easier.
So why the negative press? Poor information and faddishness seems to be the culprit behind the hybrid hullabaloo. Conspiracy theorists, wrangling with the GE crops controversy and influenced by the glut of engrossing but grossly inaccurate information available on the web, have wrapped new breeding technologies up with old and damned the whole lot. The truth is hybrid plants have been with us since the ages and continue to influence our lives every day. None of us could live without them.
"Keep hype out of the garden."
That's why I maintain a balance in my organic garden. I love heirlooms, and even collected my own heirloom seed, but I also grow hybrids to ensure my bases are covered. I plant for fun, quality produce and keep hype out of the garden. There have been plenty of years when my heirloom tomatoes have succumbed to virus or blight while my hybrids continued producing good fruit. The same with heirloom and virus-resistant hybrid cucumbers, peppers and squash. Mixing it up is good. Both heirlooms and hybrids are good for the garden and table and exist in the garden peaceably.
A good starter book on the subject is Noel Kingsbury's book Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding
. It provides a well-rounded history of plant hybrids and their influence. I also enjoyed a NY Times article that came out a couple of years ago titled Heirloom Seeds or Flinty Hybrids
by Michael Tortorello because it provided a look at the political and social underpinnings of the anti-hybrid movement. I also try to keep track of studies that give us greater and greater understanding of what plant heterosis is and how it works
"Both heirlooms and hybrids are good for the garden and table and exist in the garden peaceably."