The Science of Sustainability

What is an Heirloom Tomato, Anyway?

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Animation by Michaela Vatcheva

“Heirloom” tomatoes. “Hybrid” cucumber seeds. Cereal free of “genetically modified” ingredients. These food labels are everywhere, but what exactly do they mean? In the short animation above, we remove some of the mystery by showing that these terms refer to different ways of creating plants with appealing traits — like a drought-resistant strain of wheat or a beautifully blushing apple.

Designing a better plant has always been part of agriculture, but as we’ve learned more about genetics, our toolkit for developing those plants has expanded. Plant varieties that used to be fine-tuned in the field over many generations can now be developed much more quickly in a greenhouse or lab. These advances have enabled us to bring new, high-performing crop species to market quickly, but they have inflicted some collateral damage on agricultural diversity. Watch the QUEST video “Saving Our Seeds” to find out why this diversity matters and meet some of the people working to preserve it.

 

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Category: Biology, Environment, Food, Sustainable Food, Video

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Eleanor Nelsen

About the Author ()

Eleanor Nelsen is a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When she's not studying rhodium chemistry, Eleanor enjoys reading and writing about science. She lives in Madison with her husband Luke and their growing collection of livestock.