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. 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

3 responses to “Guy’s news: Artichokes, phenotypes, genotypes & Luddites

  1. This is a really interesting post – it explains the homogenous nature of foods found on supermarket shelves, compared to those that come from the back garden. The fact that four agro chemical purveyors of poison control the seed market is deeply concerning. There is a new herbicide in the US creating havoc called Dicamba – it is so toxic, that plants have to be genetically modified to withstand its extreme toxicity, and it devastates everything else it comes into contact with. Every consumer with half a brain and an ounce of conscience
    should buy organic. #notincideofme

  2. Very interesting about the F1 hybrids – I certainly hadn’t grasped before what it meant. But absolutely shocking – and no surprise – that we are so ruled by these big agrochemical companies whose sole raison d’etre is making money. It’s very hard to address the problem – most people haven’t a clue about what contaminates the food on their plates. We are led to believe that cost is the only factor.

  3. i agree with Paul Thomas – this is a very interesting post. For a first time reader here of Guy’s blog newsletter, of course without reading Paul’s comment, i would have otherwise presumed they’re all as interesting as this :-)… my usual ritual is simply to log on and place my order. Guy seems intelligently self reflective as he refers to his view as potentially one of a Luddite but I can only say I have to agree, it doesnt sound in anyway good…for any lover of diversity and nature’s abundance, the increasingly enforced restriction by agro chemical companies can only mean bad things for humans and creatures that was share the planet with… It’s all sounding so un bio diverse, Im scared! we’ll have to go off and grow our own or maybe that’s the niche/USP for Riverford to increase the unusual products… Im def going to have to start reading more now.. and also a nod and thank you to Paul’s additional info which is also very interesting – thanks to you both

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