Deciding between heirloom and genetically modified produce requires careful consideration.

Sourcing enough produce to turn out 500-plus meals per day is no easy feat. Dietary limitations and budget considerations are clear constraints.

A lot of factors go into produce procurement, but most come back to the bottom line:

  • Is investing in richer (in more ways than one) heirloom produce worthwhile?
  • Or, would your diners be happier with a lower plate price?

These questions can be answered by a discerning chef who pays attention to both his restaurant’s brand and customer base and strives to remain true to both.

Deciding between heirloom and genetically modified (GMO) produce requires careful consideration of the pros and cons of each, which we dive into below.

Heirloom Cons

If your intention is to go for a premium experience, you’ll have to take the bad with the good.

You Pay for What You Get

Heirloom produce simply costs more. This may be because it is often grown on smaller-scale farms, cultivated with organic, sustainable, or other labor-intensive tactics, and can be more susceptible to pests and disease. All of these factors lead to a higher price. If your consumer base doesn’t appreciate the premium value, you’ll have a negative return on investment with heirloom produce.

Irregular Sizes Don’t Ship Well

The uncommon shapes of less frequently grown heirloom varieties means you’re paying a premium for extra or customized packaging. If you’re not, you’re still paying a premium for the high quality (and more expensive) vegetables damaged en route.

Irregular Supply

Don’t expect your local, organic, sustainable heirloom producers to be able to keep up with the Cargill and Monsanto-reliant monocroppers. Their smaller scale dictates that these farms almost certainly won’t be able to meet your demand all year round.

This can lead to frustrated customers who want a consistent dining experience, team morale issues, and even a breakdown in your restaurant’s ability to serve the food it advertises.

GMO Cons

When it comes to GMO, you’re sure to get more bang for your buck. But, are your customers getting what they bargained for when they came in the front door for a healthy meal?

There is only one major concern when you shop GMO.

GMO Equals Heavy Sprays

If your farmer routinely sprays their Roundup Ready produce to reduce weed competition, there is no denying that your kitchen is serving up food laden with potentially cancer-causing chemicals. If your customers’ well-being is your primary concern as a chef, this is one major negative aspect of GMOs to consider.

Heirloom Pros

While heirloom produce may cost more, there are tangible benefits, both on the table and in the back office.

Unique Textures, Tastes, and Colors

Cooking with heirloom produce, it’s almost easy to make a delicious dish. From soil health to specifically bred variety traits, heirloom produce is rich in textures, tastes, and colors completely unavailable in crops grown on large-scale farming operations.

Premium Value for Branding

Heirloom produce is more likely to be local, organic, and/or sustainable. Leverage that purchasing decision to enhance your restaurant’s branding and you may generate a healthy return on investment.

Your restaurant’s marketing team can showcase your ethical purchasing decisions on the company’s social media, brick and mortar storefront, and menu pages.

GMO Pros

The value proposition heirlooms present may make it seem like it’s impossible for GMOs to compete. However, there are many reasons why a chef would choose GMO:

GMO Produce Is Cheaper

For the budget-conscious chef, GMOs will always be the way to go. GMO crops are typically grown in monoculture environments at scale, then sold wholesale to bulk distributors. The price point will be significantly lower than heirloom produce.

Consistent Quality and Size

Another advantage of GMO produce which should not be underestimated is the consistency of product quality and size. This trickles down in a number of ways:

  • Better packaging and shelf-life
  • Ease of handling by prep and line cooks
  • And, no plate envy from diners looking at a neighbor’s order with a different sized heirloom tomato slice.

If your business’s reputation relies on creating a uniform product, GMO produce is your answer.

More Reliable Supply

Because you are sourcing from bulk distributors who have contracts with multiple large-scale farms, you’re unlikely to face the supply shortages which plague chefs who source from small-scale farming operations.


The decision to buy GMO versus heirloom isn’t easy for the customer or the chef. At the end of the day, you need to look at your business model and customers’ expectations, then decide where your budget is best allocated.

Expert Takes, Feature