Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hybrids? No, thanks!

Here some of our tomato plants growing in the garden
Last spring we planted some vegetables. It's my wife that mostly takes care of the little plants, but both of us put all our enthusiasm into this enterprise and finally, after much success with zucchini, in this period we are beginning to harvest our beloved tomatoes, maybe a little late, due to our mountain climate. We are very proud.

Our tomatoes taste much better than the ones you can buy at the store, because the fruits ripen while still on the plants. If only a tomato could be put in the telephone cable i would let you taste it yourself.

The prize for our devotion was being able to see the whole growth, from the seeds to the resulting fruits. But it's not only for this that i like the idea of gardening vegetables. I believe that producing our own vegetables shows that, atleast in part, one can exit from the logic of consumerism that fattens our society despite the poor countries.

Self-production of vegetables, moreover, reduces to the minimum any waste, especially in a subsistence system upon which the plants grow from the seeds saved from the previous year's harvest (we are planning to try this method). This past year experience delighted us so much that we have already begun to buy seeds for next year, and in this research i discovered a disconcerting thing.

At the store the tomatoes we like most are the "Mini San-Marzano". So we tried to look for informations about seeds of this variety, and we discovered that they are hybrids. In flower shops and nurseries we noticed also on packaging of other vegetables seeds the lablel "F1 hybrid" well shown.

As an ignorant that i am, i tried to give a meaning to this expression, as an analogy to the animal world. An hybrid is an individual born crossing parents of two different races. But what about it in botany?

Tomatoes "Rouge d'Iraq" variety
Surfing the Internet it opened to me a new world. A hybrid (i was looking in particular for tomatoes, but it applies also for a big number of other vegetables that are at the base of entire continents alimentation, like corn) is a plant born from a seed obtained from a fruit produced with a particular technique of artificial impollination.

The first step lies in reproducing plants by mean of autotrophic breeding, for a number of six to ten generations. Since tomatoes are hermaphrodites (that is that every flower contains both the masculine and femimine element), it is possible that they self-fecundate (autotrophic pollination).

This type of breeding obtains children-plants weaker than their parents, because (if i well understood) also the recessive genes reply. In genetics, between two alternatives, the dominante (stronger) gene tends to win, and this gene usually brings the best peculiarities, for example the vigor of the plant (infact a gene that carry a looser peculiarity would be already extinct in the history for natural selection). In an autotrophic pollination, instead, the genetic patrimony of the style (feminine part) is identical to the one of the pollen (masculine part), and so also the recessive genes can reply undisturbed.

Once obtained plants like that, weak but pure, the second step is to cross, by mean of artificial pollination, the styles of one genetical line with the pollen of another one (the artificial pollination is mandatory to be sure that the flower don't self-pollinate again). This process produces plants much more vigorous and fructiferous than the ancestors that started the lines. The seeds produced from the fruits of these plants are labeled as "F1 (= first generation) hybrids". So, buying seeds of "hybrid F1" varieties one can expect a better production, and this, if it is already stimulating for a little garden of one's family, it is fundamental for productive farmhouses.

Tomatoes "Cherokee purple" variety
The problem of hybrids obtained like that is that those plants produce fruits that contain seeds which genetic patrimony is very poor, so the next generations tend to be always weaker and weaker. So much that it proves inconvenient to use the seeds of the previous harvest to grow the next year plants.

The consequence of this is that the farmers must buy every year the seeds for their plantations. And who gets the benefits are the companies that produce hybrid seeds. Their strategy is to find commercially valid varieties, push them on the market and create a demand, so that the farmers must convert to those varieties and buy the seeds year by year.

Few multinational companies, which names are already known for production of genetically modified organisms (Monsanto, Pioneer,...) control also the market of these seeds, and so they are progressively becoming owner of the entire agricultural and food market, manipulating economy of poor countries that lived with subsistency farming till now.

For the farmers themselves it's impossible to learn to produce their own seeds by mean of ibridation, because, above the special skill required, this technique also needs a big effort in labor. Easier, for them, to buy the seeds from those multinational companies that brilliantly solve this detail of overworking cheap labor of the poor countries.

I am kind of ignorant about this matter, and till few days ago i didn't even know the existence of hybrid seeds. I wonder if there exist a movement that opposes to these techniques similar to what it is happening for GM products. I wonder if there is a regulation in Italy (i doubt there is any in the USA, being that there is none for GMO either) that imposes atleast to label the seeds obtained in this way.

I wonder, at last, how could it be possible to make an ethical shopping when buying vegetables in the stores: for what i know not even organic agriculture refuses hybrids.

References: Our tomatoes in these pictures are - i hope - all non-hybrids.


Rowena said...

And if they come up with a hybrid named Dario? Darius? DARIOUSH! Oh the flavor! (the wine, not the tomato).

Leave it alone if someone should hybridize a gorgeous tomato named Rowena -- with a name like that I wouldn't trust it for a second!) :-D

tychecat said...

Hey Dario,
Don't sweat it! ALL - that's right ALL the veggies you eat or that are available are hybrids. In many cases you would not even recognize their ancestor as edible.
Some vegetables are so far developed that they will not even propagate themselves in the wild (Maize and Green Beans are examples. You would not like the wine made from unhybridized grapes.
Hybrid tomatoes are an extreme example of how that art can be carried to ridiculous extremes. At UC Davis they even developed a tomato with so tough a skin that it must be exploded off - done so the tomatoes could stand transportation is a large truck without the bottom ones being smashed. Those tomatoes are used to make ketchup

Rowena said...

I don't know about that Tychecat. Some of the stuff they eat here in Europe wouldn't appeal to the bland tastes of americans in general. The same would apply to any other country of course.

As for the hybrids, when they start putting letters and numbers...oooh sounds tantalizing! It's the patenting that gets me. Good grief...

Rowena said...

Hold the veggies, take a look at this link. Gotta love the new names, but in further discussion of hybrids, I quote:

[Hybrid fruits and vegetables are nothing new. Pretty much all produce sold today are hybrids, but typical hybrids are crosses within the same type of fruit or vegetable. Nature continuously produces hybrids, but they are generally within the same species or they don’t produce seeds.]

In my gardening blog circle there is always discussion between heirlooms and hybrid. It would appear that hybrid people just want an end product that they can consistently count on, while heirloom growers are more of the adventurous type that likes a challenge. The question is which type are you?

dario said...

Tychecat, the subject of hybridation includes different problems.

As Rowena says, nature itself does continuously do hybridation (between individuals of the same specie of fruit... actually i believe that nature does do it also between different species, but the originated fruit is going to be sterile, and so good or bad it doesn't influence nature).
A new variety generated crossing individues belonging to different varieties of the same specie ends up to be winner in nature or not, depending on natural selection. If crossing tomato A and B it generates a very vigorous tomato AB, for example, AB is going to invade the environment much better than other less vigorous varieties.

Unfortunately what is good for nature is not necessarily good for humans (i could say usually it isn't!!!).
Vigorous tomato AB maybe doesn't have a good taste... maybe not even eatable. That's why, since the very beginning of agriculture, humans invented artificialy hybridation in order to fold natural selection under their needs.
If nature rewards with survival who is strong against the natural environment, humans can change the natural environment in order to allow survival of weaker, but better usable, varieties. For example, if we try to throw away from our garden all AB tomatoes, we pull all the weeds, we properly fertilize the ground and we plant CD tomatoes, although AB would be the natural selected winners, CD is gonna win in our garden, because we manipulated the natural forces that would favorite AB.

We can discuss, if you want, if this kind of manipulation of nature is moral.
On one side there is the problem that this technique makes nature weaker, being that the weaker varieties are prized in the competition of the stronger.
On the other side, humans usually tend to morally favorite, in any competition, human race. I, myself, if i see a white siberian tiger attacking a human child, i would try to protect the human, although for nature the endangered siberian white tiger would be more important.

We can discuss about this, but it's not the subject of my post :-)

What i find immoral is private companies that, in order to make money, they manipulate natural selection, without the goal to solve the problem of starvation, but instead to worsen the condition of poor people. Yes, to me that is immoral.

There are some cow breeds that cannot naturally reproduce because the shape of their bodies, after artificial selection in order to obtain better production of meat, does not allow it. Farmers must artificial inseminate, to breed those races. But there is a difference between this and MiniSanMarzano tomatoes. In this last case, infact, farmer must buy seeds year by year, while farmers that grow cows can artificial inseminate their cow theirselves, or leave that job to normal veterinaries. In MiniSanMarzano who controls the market is Monsanto company, while in the case of the cow who controls the market are the farmers theirselves. And this makes the difference between poverty and equity.

Classic San Marzano (the flavor is similar to Mini San Marzano) are for sure hybrid in the sense that they have been obtained by farmers in centuries and centuries crossing the first varieties coming from south america. But they are not "Hybrid F1" labeled, which means that if you (naturally or artificially) pollinate Classic San Marzano tomatoes yourself, you produce fruits which seeds generate plants similar to their parents. Mini San Marzano happens to have no seeds at all! Other varieties happens to have sterile seeds, or seeds that produce plants less vigorous or which fruits are not good as parent plant fruits. And that is done for the precise purpose to make unconvenient for farmers any subsistance farming system. That makes farmers poor and Monsanto company engineers rich.

I believe this is a tad immoral. What do you think?

Rowena said...

I've just read information regarding hybrids...you can save the seeds if you want but they won't be true to type, meaning that they won't resemble the plant that it came from.

Saving Seeds From Hybrid Plants

tychecat said...

I agree with you about the morality - or lack thereof - of patenting living propagating plants and animals.
I think we have a terminology difference here. I don't think you really object to hybridizing - you are rejecting Genetic modification and inter-species hybridizing through gene manipulation. One problem is the development of a mono-culture varity with all the problems such genetic inbreeding brings; but this is the genesis of the "Green Revolution" which has made it possible for the world to feed itself despite our present gross overpopulation.
Maybe we should modify human genes so we don't eat as much or propagate so freely ;-)

dario said...

Tychecat, yes, there is a confusion in terminology, as far as i understood. But i am not confusing this problem with artificial genetic modification (GMO). Yes, i am against this last technology too, as you can read in this post.
The confusion is instead between the hybridation among different varieties of the same family in order to produce better varieties (which is still an artificial methodology, because Mother Nature makes her own hybridation, but her goal is to produce more resistant varieties so that the evolution goes towards a better adapting life to the environmental conditions, while humans use to select varieties that better suit their needs). For example the famous tomato San Marzano IGP is one result of this hybridation.
Another type of hybridation is the one that in italy is labelled as IBRIDO F1 (and in america i believe it is labeled HYBRID F1. The differences between this method and the previous one are:
1) HF1 are usually produced crossing different genetic lines of the same families, although it can be done also between different families, and the better vigor of the plant is the effect of artificially playing with genes under NATURAL rules - which makes the difference between this method and GMO. Normal H are instead artificial crossings between two different families hoping to produce a third family that have those feature of the one and the other parent that could be appreciated by humans - although maybe not by nature.
2) HF1 produce seeds that are sterile or that produce plants much weaker or less fruit producing than the parents, while normal H produce seeds with pretty much the same features of the parents.
3) HF1 is a monopoly of few multinational companies, while normal H technique is free to use to everybody.

In particular, points 2 and 3 make the difference between "helping poor people that live of agriculture in the third world" and "using poor people for the advantage of the rich world enlarging the disparity between us and them.
If you read the first article i linked (the only one in English), you can see the technique, which is very different from GMO and the one you mean by simply crossing two different races.