You Say Tomato, I Say Monsanto | Civil Eats

You Say Tomato, I Say Monsanto


Scientific American recently published an article called How to Grow a Better Tomato: The Case against Heirloom Tomatoes. The author details how plant breeders are going about saving heirloom tomatoes from their own fatal flaws. The article was written in a combative tone with the author seemingly intent on provoking a knee-jerk reaction from lovers of good, real food not managed under laboratory conditions. It worked. The article garnered 80 comments, most from home gardeners taking issue with the errors peppering in the article like tomato seeds on a cutting board. The piece even provoked comments from some of the people in the article—namely employees of Monsanto. Seeing the name Monsanto connected with the concept of “improving” yet another food, makes it a little difficult to be neutral, but I’m going to try to look at this article with an open mind.

The author says, “heirlooms are actually feeble and inbred—the defective product of breeding experiments that began during the Enlightenment and exploded thanks to enthusiastic backyard gardeners from Victorian England to Depression-era West Virginia. Heirlooms are the tomato equivalent of the pug—that “purebred” dog with the convoluted nose that snorts and hacks when it tries to catch a breath.”

I’m wondering why, if they are so feeble, have heirloom tomatoes been passed down and saved for generations? And why do they continue to thrive?

The author says that heirlooms actually lack genetic diversity compared to hybrid varieties. He quotes a plant geneticist as saying that “there’s probably no more than 10 mutant genes that create the diversity of heirlooms you see.”

I’m not a geneticist but couldn’t these 10 genes be combined in endless combinations to produce the variety we see? And isn’t variety inherent when it’s obvious to anyone that there are hundreds of varieties of heirlooms and only a few hybrids that are grown commercially and by backyard gardeners?

The article also says that heirlooms are more susceptible to fungus that cause cracking and rot.

Haven’t gardeners been saving seeds that are well adapted to grow well in their particular soil and climate? Might the problem of hardiness be more a problem of growing certain heirlooms in places where they are ill suited?

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

He then quotes a scientist as saying that the celebrated superior flavor of heirloom tomatoes is really due to the fact that they have much lower yields than hybrids (sometimes only 2 fruits) and because they are ripened on the vine. The great flavor has nothing to do with their genetic make-up.

Even a gardener with a black thumb, like myself, will see that statement about heirlooms only setting two fruits as a wild exaggeration. And of course anything ripened on the vine is going to taste better than something picked green, gassed with ethylene, and transported by truck. That’s a given, so why do we need Monsanto to transform heirloom tomatoes into something that can stand up to such treatment?

Both the plant breeder and the Monsanto PR person saw fit to comment on the article for their own reasons due to misstatements in the article, such as the assertion that hybrid seeds are sterile. They are not. Since the article ran, the editor has changed some of the offending passages (marked by asterisks). The comment by Monsanto’s PR person stated that they didn’t like the title of the piece because they are doing what they are doing for the love of heirlooms….because they really want to save them.

And that’s when we get to the real point. The company that brought us PCBs, Agent Orange, rBGH, tried to patent the pig, and has unleashed a litany of misery worldwide doesn’t want to save heirloom tomatoes for us. They want to patent and own them. Though the company has met with resistance to nearly every product it has tried to sell worldwide, it just keeps plugging along like a nightmarish telemarketer on endless redial. Monsanto won’t stop until they own every seed on the planet. This article in Grist from last year estimates that with Monsanto’s 2008 acquisition of Dutch tomato breeding company, De Ruiter Monsanto may now control as much as 85% of the US tomato market. Even though the PR person states in the comment section that Monsanto is doing this for commercial gardens, not home gardeners, I think it might be prudent for all home gardeners to lock up your heirloom tomato seeds in a safe place and watch which way the wind blows.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

Vanessa is a food writer and chef based in Oakland, California. She is the author of the forthcoming book, DIY Delicious: Recipes and Ideas for Simple Food From Scratch (Chronicle, Fall 2010) and coauthor of Heirloom Beans (Chronicle 2008). She works as a consultant with HavenBMedia on food, agriculture, and environmental issues. She blogs about food policy and healthy cooking for EcoSalon and her own blog, Vanessa Barrington, and she thinks the world would be a better place if more people cooked real food more often. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. I completely agree with and appreciate your piece. I wrote a similar reactionary post to my blog concerning the scientific american article -
  2. I just went and locked my sea man and yellow pear tomatoes up :) will have to hide the key! thanks for this scary yet informative piece.
  3. Last year I grew one hybrid tomato variety and three heirloom varieties. I always vine ripen my tomatoes .. all of them. There was no comparison. The hybrids were largely tasteless (but did hold longer on the vine as they would in shipping). The heirlooms had tons of flavor. The hybrids did significantly out produce the heirlooms but we pitched a lot of the hybrids because they were literally good for nothing ... not even the energy required to reduce them to catsup. And, the heirlooms gave us enough for what we required.

    I realize that anecdotes too often trump data and this is an anecdote but it is also a data point.
  4. This is the Monsanto "PR person" referred to in your post as well as the one who responded to the Scientific American article.

    I looked back over my post on the SciAm article, and I don't feel my comment characterized our business objectives in such a flippant way as purely for the "love of heirlooms." Obviously, we want to make a profit by developing products that meet the need of our customers. That's what companies do. What I said was that our breeder has a passion for heirlooms (true), and that the heirloom hybrids we are working on fulfill a need voiced to us by our customers (also true).

    My quibble with the article is I felt that it represented all heirlooms as weak and feeble in the estimation of all who produce them. As you have adroitly pointed out, the genetics of these heirlooms are perfectly fine--if not better than hybrids--for certain types of production. Namely, that of the many home gardeners and commercial producers who choose to grow open-pollinated varieties.

    However, one size does not fit all. Some growers who want to produce heirlooms on a larger commercial scale and encounter issues with cracking and rot have told us they would like a more comprehensive disease resistance package.

    Contrary to Internet rumor, we do not control the tomato seed supply. We sell to a specific group of growers. Home gardeners and others in commercial production who do not wish to grow hybrids or Monsanto products certainly have the choice not to. I'm not sure where Grist came up with 85% of the U.S. market but from the notes in the article it looks to be based on old public filings prior to Monsanto's acquisition of Seminis and conjecture on the author's part.

    Finally, in response to the litany of topics you brought up (Agent Orange, patents, etc.), I'd invite anyone who's interested for another side to the story to check out where most of these topics are addressed.

    I, like you, prefer a tomato that's been picked off the vine. My father-in-law grew some last year that were delicious. However, since I live in the Midwest, and most fresh-market tomatoes are grown on the Coast, I'm limited to enjoying those off-the-vine tomatoes to the summer months.
  5. Dear Monsanto PR rep and everyone else who wants to eat tomatoes on Christmas,

    You are limited to enjoying vine ripened tomatoes only in the summer months because that is the only way that they can grow in the climate of this part of the world. if you would like to enjoy vine ripened tomatoes at other parts of the year I suggest you move to a more tropical climate.

    Welcome to the Midwest.
  6. I'd love to move someplace warmer and enjoy more year-round produce. However, my family and personal situation prevent me from the ability to do so.

    I still want my son to be able to enjoy tomatoes outside of those summer months (it's one of the few vegetables-fruits?-he'll eat). I know that's not a popular response, and I agree that when produce is in season it's much more enjoyable. However, to get my family and myself the nutrition we need, I'll have to settle for not-so-local produce.

    I do promise that we don't eat tomatoes on Christmas!
  7. You're a really good spokesperson, Mica. Very personable.

    Could you maybe take a minute, if you have time, and explain your company's use of Pinkerton detectives and invasive examinations of bank records to put seed cleaners out of business? Your warrantless investigations of farmers' property if you suspect that they're saving seed?

    Could you perhaps explain why you prosecute farmers for theft when pollen from your wind-pollinated, GM crops blows into fields that they've been planting with privately saved seed for decades? Will you start going after tomato crops in fields that neighbor fields full of GM crops, just in case a bee or other pollinating insect has contaminated their seed stock?

    Could you tell us a little bit about the private meeting with Montana legislators? The meeting that killed a bill that would have put an end to your draconian, no-knock searches of farms and a limit to farmers' liability in cases where your product had unknowingly contaminated their land.

    Because if you're answering questions, I'm all ears.
  8. Robert Watson
    I take it form your non-response to Natasha's post that your company (Monsanto) is guilty on all charges. Thanks for clearing that up Mica V.
  9. Bridgie
    Sorry, Mica-corporate-spokesperson, but the age-old responsible (and much tastier) option is to eat canned/dried tomatoes when they're out of season. But if you like your tomatoes tasteless, mealy, full of pesticides, and cancer-ridden, that's your choice to make for your own children.

More from

Local Food


hickens gather around a feeder at a farm on August 9, 2014 in Osage, Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What Happened to Antibiotic-Free Chicken?

With the biggest poultry company in the country backtracking and other commitments to raising healthier birds unmet, the future is rockier than it once seemed.


Nik Sharma Offers His Top Tips for Home Cooks to Fight Recipe Fatigue

Nik Sharma baking at left, and tossing a chickpea dish at right. (Photo credit: Nik Sharma)

Far From Home, the Curry Leaf Tree Thrives

Zee Lilani of Kula Nursery stands among her curry leaf tree starts in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja)

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping

Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)