By Kim Robson
When you hear the term “heirloom” and it’s not about Aunt Eunice’s sideboard, we’re referring to fruit and vegetable varieties that are more than 50 years old — the same fruits and vegetables our grandmothers grew. These plants were around long before the huge agribusinesses creating most of the so-called “food” in stores today. Heirlooms taste fantastic. I particularly love heirloom tomatoes. They are so delicious that it’s hard not to eat them right out of hand. No wonder kids don’t like vegetables: they’ve tasted only artificially ripened, tasteless, rubbery, grocery store vegetables that have already traveled half the world.
Grocery store vegetables are bred to be attractive and hardy. Nutrition and flavor don’t factor into the equation. There is little to no variety in grocery chains; one might never know there are more than three types of apples, or more than two types of tomatoes or potatoes. Heirloom varieties have been grown for centuries, and over time they’ve seen drought, fungus, and diseases come and go. The programming to fight off some of these challenges is written into their genetic code.
Heirlooms must, by definition, be open-pollinated, which happens naturally, via insects, birds, or wind, as opposed to closed (artificial) pollination, hybridization, or cloning. That means seeds harvested from your heirlooms will produce the same plants in the next generation. They have been bred and stabilized by using age-old breeding practices. No genetically modified plants may be considered heirloom cultivars. If you try to regrow seeds from genetically modified or hybrid plants, you’ll find they’re either sterile or produce nothing like the original plant, thus ensuring farmers’ dependency on seed distributors for future crops.
Agricultural biodiversity is a good thing: it is the measure of variety in our food chain. The handful of fruits and vegetables available at the store are there for very good reasons: high yield, insect resistance, large size, appealing color, toughness for extended shipping, and long shelf life. The problem arises when we become so very dependent on those few strains. If a drought, flood, fungus, or disease wipes out just one strain, a significant portion of our food supply is compromised. Prices increase as availability decreases. The consequences can even be deadly.
Starvation during the Irish potato famine killed 1.5 million people, and a million more fled Ireland forever, leaving the reeling country’s population diminished by 20% to 25%. Due to British colonization at the time, a third of Ireland became dependent on the potato for its food. British addiction to beef had a devastating impact on Irish farming. Their cattle overran much of Ireland, forcing farmers off the best pastures and requiring them to cultivate smaller plots of questionable land. The Irish turned to the potato, which could be grown reliably and abundantly in less-than-favorable soil, leaving the native population largely dependent on the potato just for survival. The potato became a staple food, especially for the poor, especially in winter. As well, it was heavily relied upon for livestock fodder.
Then came Phytophthora infestans, a devastating fungus. In 1845, one third of the potato crop was lost; in 1846, three quarters was lost; and Fall of 1846 saw the first recorded deaths from starvation. Seed potatoes were scarce in 1847 and few had been sown, so hunger continued despite average yields. Then the 1848 crop would be only two thirds of normal. Famine ran rampant through 1849. Other European countries, also affected by the fungus, were far less hard hit, in large part because of biodiversity.
Let us not forget the lessons of history. Variety in our food is not only very healthful for our systems, but also is also essential for the overall health of our food supply system. Biodiversity is like an insurance policy against drought, flood, insect infestation, fungus, and diseases. Order heirloom varietals from your favorite seed catalogs like Burpee’s or Annie’s.