Guy’s news: Disillusioned with uniformity in my artichokes

Last week I was singing the praises of hybrids, with just a few reservations. In the space of one damp week the first hybrid variety of my beloved artichokes succumbed to mildew and is now all but dead; what promised to be a bumper yield ended up barely paying for the inflated cost of the seed (four times the price of non-hybrids). Next door, in the genetically highly varied, open pollinated variety a few plants have been weakened but most have the genetics to resist the pathogen and are still doing well.

Last week I was singing the praises of hybrids, with just a few reservations. In the space of one damp week the first hybrid variety of my beloved artichokes succumbed to mildew and is now all but dead; what promised to be a bumper yield ended up barely paying for the inflated cost of the seed (four times the price of non-hybrids). Next door, in the genetically highly varied, open pollinated variety a few plants have been weakened but most have the genetics to resist the pathogen and are still doing well.

Hybrids can produce high yields and be uniform in appearance and maturity, making them quick to pick; but their narrow genetic base means they are often poorly equipped to withstand the challenges of pest and disease attack, weather extremes or areas of low fertility in the field. Farmers become enslaved to meeting the narrow needs of their hybrid seeds, whatever the environmental cost. Farmers and customers have come to expect, and even require the uniform vegetables hybrids produce, to the extent that it is getting harder and harder to find a market for the traditional open pollinated varieties which often look wild and woolly by comparison. Were we always drawn to that controlled, neat uniformity or have our eyes been trained to it by the environment we live in and more particularly, shop in, with all those neat parallel shelves?

Uniformity is an anathema in nature; it is inherently unstable and risky. When the meteorite strikes, the volcano erupts or the glaciers melt it is the freaks on the fringes that provide the genetic diversity that allows adaptation and survival. The uniform mainstream, specialised to narrow ‘normality’, is wiped out when normality shifts. Given the current market paradigm, it is hard to argue against the development of narrow normality as represented by hybrids (and GM in more extreme circumstances), but it will be wiped out; maybe not in my lifetime and maybe not by this freak, but it will happen. One day earthlings will look back on the lumbering and domineering Monsanto and Tesco with the dismay and disbelief elicited when looking up at T. rex in the Natural History Museum.

Guy Watson

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