Guy’s news: Artichokes, phenotypes, genotypes & Luddites

Last week I picked 300 globe artichokes before I found one that didn’t cut it. The extraordinary uniformity and succulence of the crop was partly down to a damp summer and our growing skills allowing even growth, but most of the credit goes to the plant breeders; the variety (Opera) was an F1 hybrid. Hybrids are created by many generations of inbreeding to create two genetically uniform parental strains.

Last week I picked 300 globe artichokes before I found one that didn’t cut it. The extraordinary uniformity and succulence of the crop was partly down to a damp summer and our growing skills allowing even growth, but most of the credit goes to the plant breeders; the variety (Opera) was an F1 hybrid. Hybrids are created by many generations of inbreeding to create two genetically uniform parental strains. These strains lack vigour and virtue in themselves, but when crossed, every cell of every plant will receive one gene from each of the parents making the first ‘F1’ generation both genetically uniform and highly vigorous. In my 30 years as a grower, hybrid veg varieties have gone from 5% to 95% of the market, reflecting the falling costs of the technology, and economic benefits to growers, retailers and, arguably, consumers.

For years I grew traditional open-pollinated artichokes; they were hardy and the best tasted wonderful but picking was slow, yields were low and a third were unacceptably thorny and tough, reminding me of their thistle-like progenitors. As such it would be ridiculous, and perhaps Luddite, to deny the benefits of hybridisation. However, as only the first generation gets the prized uniformity, its prevalence has removed the ability of farmers to save their own seed and develop strains to suit local conditions and tastes; a big issue for subsistence farmers in the developing world who risk getting into unsustainable debt through buying seed each year. I do also have some concerns over loss of genetic diversity (global food supply is becoming dependent on a worryingly narrow genetic base) as well as flavour and nutritional content, though without supporting evidence, this could be a Luddite prejudice I should question. Perhaps more worryingly 56% (and rising) of the world seed market is now controlled by four global, predominantly agrochemical companies with little interest in diversity, organic or small-scale production.

Purple and green, mostly hybrid artichokes, which are mostly splendid, will be available until the first hard frost. We also plan to sell the baby artichokes (much loved in southern Europe) by the kilo; quantities will be limited so artichoke lovers watch the website.

Guy Watson

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