What’s in a name: Heirloom, hybrid or GMO tomatoes

Tomatoes2_blogWith a variety of tomatoes available for choosing at grocery stores and markets—plum, cherry, pear, striped, large, small—and in a variety of colors, it can be hard to pick out what tomato is best and, really, what the tomato actually is. The names and the basic definitions of three of the main types of tomatoes (heirloom, hybrid and GMO) are relatively the same: tomatoes that have been altered in some way in order to be its own kind of tomato.

However, the difference between them is great.

Passing down a bit of history

Heirloom tomatoes, or at least their namesake, comes from a speech Kent Whealy of Seed Savers Exchange gave in Tucson, Arizona in 1981. The term heirloom in regards to plants is 40 years earlier than that: originally, William Hepler, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, used the term to describe some beans that he had gotten from friends in the 1940s.

Heirloom tomatoes are a “variety that has been passed down through several generations of a family because of its values characteristics,” according to Tomato Fest. Each variety is also unique with a specific set of characteristics about resistance to pests and diseases, adaption to its surroundings and environment and climates.

Another special thing about these types of tomatoes are that they are open-pollinated, a fancy way of saying that they can be pollinated through natural mechanisms (such as insects, birds and wind). Civil Eats also states that “their seeds can be saved and replanted with fairly consistent results.”

A fine line

There is a fine line between what separates a hybrid tomato from a GMO-type of product. A key component about hybrid varieties is that they are predictable, occasionally presenting fewer problems than that of their heirloom cousins.

Hybrids are a cross between two genetically different tomato varieties, which results in getting the best qualities of both parents. That means that hybrid tomatoes often have more tomatoes on each plant, and are consistent in size and color across each fruit.

Where’d they go?

You’d be hard-pressed to find a GMO-tomato on the market: They have virtually disappeared. After being first introduced in the U.S. market in 1994, the FlavrSavr was the first genetically modified crop commercially available.

The tomato was sold on the ideal that it could ripen on the vine and continue to have a long shelf life. Normally, tomatoes are picked before they ripen, and are ripened artificially.

The genetically modified products failed to make an impact on consumers, peaking in its popularity in 1998 and disappearing shortly afterwards. Currently, no genetically modified tomatoes are available commercially either in the U.S. or in Europe.

Classification doesn’t stop there

So we have heirloom and we have hybrid tomatoes. Classification of tomatoes, however, goes beyond that one layer. The second level of classification is based upon when a plant produces fruit throughout the season.

A determinate tomato produces fruit for several weeks, then stops when it eventually forms a flower cluster at the growing point. An indeterminate tomato plant, on the other hand, produces fruit throughout the season until frost. This type of plant also produces terminal flower clusters, but only lateral ones, meaning that the plant can continue to grow taller and bear more fruit.

Tomato types also focuses on looks. Regardless if it is hybrid or heirloom, or determinate or indeterminate, the fruit must also be classified by its shape. There are four in the tomato world: globe (heavily commercially-cultivated fruit), beefsteak (the biggest ones), paste (thick-walled fruit used for sauces) and cherry (the smallest fruits).

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