It’s given us such strange fruits like the pomato, the blood lime and the pluot: Hybridization. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but the act of cross-pollinating plants to make a new plant has given us many of our familiar, everyday fruits and vegetables.
So what is this strange hybridization, and how safe (or dangerous) is it for us to eat?
First of all, hybridization is not the same as genetic modification—as I had thought when I first heard of it. To create a genetically modified organism (or GMO), DNA molecules from different sources are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes in that organism. But with hybridization, it’s more like setting up an arranged marriage between plants (or animals, as is done to breed animals like the mule). By forcing cross-pollination between two similar species, man is able to create a new “baby” that has traits from both parents but becomes its own new being.
During my research, I was surprised to learn that even the common garden strawberry is a man-made hybrid! Lemons, grapefruits and mandarin oranges are all living examples of fruits we hybridized years ago. The nutritional composition of hybrids isn’t thought to be compromised from the cross-pollination process, as it’s merely “forcing” the procreation between two plants.
The biggest concern with hybridized fruits and vegetables is less about human health and more so about sustainability and economic concern. Our heirloom crops are already at risk of being forced out of the agricultural system from giants like Monsanto. Agribusiness forces modern farmers to use their companies’ seeds (which are often GMO and designed to be sterile), a sad cycle which makes farmers dependent on these companies for supplying them new seeds year after year… and meanwhile, our heritage seeds are pushed out of the whole system—until the small farmer saves them and helps us to preserve them. The situation is similar with hybrid vegetables and fruits, which are often developed by large agribusiness as a means of creating the “perfect” product, or as a means of creating a new gimmicky fruit for the consumer looking for something a bit wacky and unconventional.
But, for the consumer looking for something a bit unconventional, heirloom is a great route to explore. These heritage fruits and vegetables have a diverse genetic base that gives them assorted shapes, colors, sizes and flavors. And best of all, heirloom foods are able to ensure a more stable food system; the larger genetic pool of heirlooms yields greater biodiversity in nature and a stronger resistance to food collapse in case of disease, weather or other catastrophes.
Ultimately, I won’t shy away from a fruit or vegetable simply because it’s a hybrid. Goodness knows, I couldn’t get through a week without a handful of fresh Meyer lemons on my countertop. But will I fall for the lemato, the jostaberry or the dekopon, just because they sound interesting and wack-a-doo? Meh, probably not. There are too many heirloom varieties of my fave plants out there that I’m too excited about to pass by.