Some thoughts about tomatoes

I was lucky enough to pick and eat as many of Amber‘s tomatoes as I could a couple of years ago when I stayed at her house.

This year, I thought I’d try to grow my own. Unfortunately, I started late, the plants seem to be teetering on the edge of death, and there are no fruits in sight. So, I’ll have to stick with buying mine again this year.

Tonight on the radio, there was a bit about the annual tomato tasting at the Carrboro Farmers Market, which discussed the 50 local varieties available for sampling – I have, evidently, missed the tasting. But for the purposes of the event, any tomato grown within a ___ mile radius (I forget how many!) is considered local whether or not the seeds were procured locally. The types they mentioned included Heirlooms, also often known as Ugly tomatoes, because, well, they are; Cherokee Purple, Cherokee Chocolate; Black Pearl; Sunshine Gold. They sound wonderful, and they don’t compare even to the nice red hothouse version sold at the grocery store.

One important point here, in addition to saving transportation costs through buying locally, and in addition to the fact that many lower-cost products in the grocery store are subsidized in one manner or another (low pay to workers included), is the idea of maintaining seed variety.

In continuing on the Barbara Kingsolver tip, I read “A Fist in the Eye of God” this week, which comes from Small Wonder. Kingsolver explains in this essay why seed variety is important and why genetic engineering of seeds is problematic, in a few pages, which makes a big difference to me in understanding my previously kinda-weak argument against genetic engineering.

Salient points:

– Many seeds produce, over decades of perfecting themselves, different types of plants that react to different situations, all in the same season in the same crop (e.g., different germination times, so some come in early and some late). Monoculture completely wipes out this defense mechanism, which means that food supply is potentially in peril.

– Many people have encouraged the promotion of certain traits in plants or animals – that’s how we get thoroughbred Arabian horses and long merino wool. Kingsolver supports (or at least does not lambast) this sort of playing around with traits, although I feel strongly that animals shouldn’t be bred with their fathers and I’m not a fan of high-strung pure bred dogs either. But at the very least, there is no actual genetic finagling of DNA of these plants and animals, which preserves the process through which they develop and protect themselves.

– So, why isn’t genetic engineering a good idea? I have a vague fear of Frankenstein / Frankencotton, etc. But what is the problem, really? We have some concerns generally speaking about effects on humans and whether we will have allergies or more severe reactions that can’t be predicted till they happen. Is that all? A sidenote: I heard yesterday that someone has developed an allergen-free peanut… Well, other than the human side, there is the effect on the plants. One example is a bacteria that explodes caterpillar stomachs, which has been used in a powder form as pesticide. Now, one can make corn that has this pesticide programmed into its DNA – BRILLIANT! Right? Wrong. The problem is that genes act in an incredibly complex manner that scientists do not fully understand. In the case of this particular corn, beings beyond the target caterpillar will be affected by the pollen produced by this corn, which has affected monarch butterfly populations. Why do we care about them? They are important pollinators. Extinct pollinators = no food = BIG PROBLEM! Bigger than human allergies!

– India (I believe) had to work very hard to outlaw a genetically engineered “terminator” seed, which is a seed that doesn’t produce a new seed, meaning that there is never a seed bank available with all these centuries of special qualities programmed into them, and farmers are forced to buy seeds each season – seeds that probably require purchase of pesticides, since they aren’t naturally pest-resistant.

This seed bank discussion is especially important in places that rely on subsistence farming. In my work, I’ve been exposed to seed distribution programs in post-conflict areas. Obviously in a place where people haven’t been able to farm because they’ve been forced off their land, they need new input. But it’s not necessarily a good idea to simply import thousands of tons of seeds via [insert aid organization here] so they can plant. One solution developed by Catholic Relief Services in West Africa was to use some influx of seeds if necessary, but to host “seed fairs” rather than plain old distribution. The idea is that people determined to be in need are given vouchers. People with extra seeds bring them and collect vouchers for them, which they can later trade in for cash. This way, those with local seed stores can encourage their exchange and propagation, rather than counting on some government supply of Genera-Seed whose crop could be killed off in an instant by an unpredicted blight.

I guess the moral of the story is, FIFTY VARIETIES OF LOCAL TOMATOES IS AWESOME AND THEY TOTALLY TASTE BETTER TOO! Support your local farmers and not Big Farma.

ps. I cast on for the Kauni cardigan. It’s addictive. I leave next week for DR Congo. I might have to leave Kauni behind. If you got this far in the entry, I do have a question about corrugated ribbing. I will probably continue as I have been, but normally – which hand should hold the color being knitted vs. the one being purled?

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5 thoughts on “Some thoughts about tomatoes

  1. I have a great fear of disappearing varieties of foods. I read a touching article about disappearing apple varieties in Britain a few years ago, and it really saddened me. We are losing so many more varieties than we are creating through breeding programs. And we’re breeding scary crops – take canola: its benefits are that it is drought-resistant and high-yield. On the minus side, it is a brassica, so it’s vulnerable to pretty much every pest in existence, and it doesn’t give back nitrogen to the soil like a legume would, so it requires a ton of fertilizer. Why was it created instead of some nice legume-based oil crop?

    Anyway, take care in Congo and have a good time!

  2. (I’m rambling here.)

    Frankencotton sounds like a good idea to me (less pesticides used is good, and cotton-production normally uses a *ton* of chemicals, from what I’ve heard), but I don’t like messing around with food crops… we just don’t *know* what will happen when we eat something that’s been messed around with. (I’m one of those allergy freaks. I worry about my food.) Terminator seeds is *really* wrong… what if those genes spread and bring about the downfall of food production? Given that their only purpose is to make money for the seed producers, it’s just *wrong*.

    Seed diversity is good. More genetic diversity means less chance of it all being wiped out.

  3. NYT recently ran an article about the problems with the bee population and the gist of it was – it’s due to genetic engineering. Fortunately, bees aren’t extinct (unlike the woman in Gatlinburg tried to tell me) but if genetic engineering continues, it’s a very real and scary possibility.

    Wish I could help on the ribbing question – sorry!

  4. Excellent post, thoughtful and informative – Thanks for sharing.

    I heard that NPR bit too, and was completely DROOOLing.

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