Edible History

Discovering the Benefits of Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables

As commercial agribusiness tightens its control, maintaining the right to choose what's on our plates has never been more important. Monsanto, Dow, Con Agra, Archer Daniels Midland and a few others have taken an increasingly powerful role in the world's food supply and distribution. Through hybridization (intentional crossing of lineages) and biotechnology that alters the genetic material of seeds, foods have become resistant to insects, herbicides and viruses. Vegetables and fruits have also been "designed" to be more durable for international shipping, as well as more cost-effective for large corporations.

The long-term cost, however, may outweigh the pennies that are pocketed as these engineered foods go to market. Some of the concerns surrounding genetic modification, according to the World Health Organization, are possible unwanted gene transfer and the potential of causing or aggravating allergic reactions.

Another serious disadvantage of using genetically altered or industrially hybridized seeds is that the farmer becomes dependent each year on the companies that hold patents on the seed, and must often purchase "promoter" chemicals to make the seeds viable. This system is also contributing to the growing erosion of plant varieties available to everyone, as fewer and fewer varieties are being planted and stored.

However, since the 1970s a countercultural seed-saving movement has blossomed in an effort to maintain our biological heritage. Preserving heirloom vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers keeps the world's available genetic diversity alive. Heirlooms are usually "open-pollinated," which means they are naturally fertilized by wind, insects, birds and mammals. The natural products company Seeds of Change explains: "Open-pollinated seeds, unlike commercial hybrids and genetically modified seeds, will produce seed, which if properly controlled to avoid cross-pollination, will reproduce true to form." Open-pollinated seeds also allow anyone to become a "backyard breeder," meaning he or she can work on adapting plants to local conditions over time.

Although there is some debate on the issue, heirloom plant varieties are usually labeled as such when they are known to have been cultivated for at least 50 years. Many have their roots in the cherished seed varieties that were brought to North America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, mostly by immigrants, while others derive from native plants. These often tastier, heartier historical plants can provide a viable alternative to the uniformity of the hybrid and genetically modified varieties that are most prominent on supermarket shelves.

Quincy Horan, who runs Waldingfield Farm, one of the largest organic operations in Connecticut, has a vast array of heirlooms in many shapes, sizes and colors. "People are resisting the cookie-cutter style of processing and packaging that occurs with large agribusinesses," says Horan. "We feel that as much selection as possible should be available to the public." Waldingfield sells produce at farmers" markets, a local farm stand and through a Community Supported Agriculture program, in which consumers purchase a "share" of the upcoming harvest in exchange for regular deliveries of fresh food (see "More Beets for the Buck," Money Matters, July/August 1999).

A Waldingfield specialty is one of the largest collections of heirloom tomatoes in North America. There are no mealy or pasty-colored tomatoes here. Two hundred and fifty varieties of brightly hued, flavorful tomatoes with such descriptive names as "Bulls Heart," "Purple Calabash" and "Green Zebra" are available to regional consumers.

Preserving Biodiversity

Many scientists now argue that preserving the genetic diversity of crops—in addition to the diversity of wild species—is of great importance. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, crop genetic resources are being lost on a global scale at the rate of one to two percent a year. Ryan Zinn of the Organic Consumers Association says, "The environmental benefits of growing heirloom plants are many. Generally, heirlooms are genetic reservoirs essential to maintaining plant diversity. Over the last 100 years we have seen a shift, due to the onset of industrial agriculture and the "Green Revolution," away from plant diversity—heirlooms—to high-output hybrids and genetically engineered crops."

Heirloom plants can also help buck the trend of monoculture, in which one variety is grown in vast fields. Critics are beginning to wonder if high-tech plant varieties are so heavily modified by human manipulation that they might have lost some of their vitality as organisms. Relying on chemical control has created crops that are more resistant to external factors, but how much can the end products be considered natural food?

Another concern regarding the planting of one crop over large parcels of land is that if some disease or weather condition ravages the crop, farmers could be left with nothing. This is what happened in the Irish potato famine of the 1840s as well as the corn blight disaster in the U.S. in 1970. The potatoes in Ireland had been cloned from varieties brought from South America. Because the potatoes were so close genetically, they shared the same weaknesses and strengths. When disease struck, the potatoes were wiped out quickly and millions starved.

In his 1997 book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (Henry Holt and Company), William Woys Weaver argues that conventional, industrially produced hybrids may fall prey to the same problem. "While it is true that geneticists can carefully breed hybrids to be resistant to certain known diseases, that huge unknown—the newly mutated virus—may undo their handiwork overnight," writes Weaver. "This has become especially frightening to home gardeners, and there is a strong grassroots movement to grow heirloom vegetables as a hedge against massive crop failures in the future," he writes.

Why Eat Heirlooms?

Heirloom produce is high in nutrients and rich in aroma, color and taste. So far, few nutritional studies have been done comparing heirlooms to other types of crops, probably because much funding comes from big agribusiness. However, lack of chemical exposure and the minimization of genetic alteration are likely to result in outstanding foods, say supporters. "The nutrition has not been bred out of them," argues Zinn.

Heirloom seeds, often passed through generations of families, may have more variables affecting their yield, but the outcome is generally more gentle on the environment, because fewer industrial chemicals are typically needed, and a more diverse plant base tends to better support wildlife.

Kent Whealy, the founder of the nonprofit group Seed Savers Exchange, notes, "Our main goal at Seed Savers is to increase the genetic diversity that is available to gardeners and farmers. What we have available to us right now is all the breeding material we will ever have for future generations, and it's dying out very rapidly." Some 8,500 seed varieties are now available to farmers and home gardeners through the group's catalogue. "Supermarket tomatoes are simply less desirable, because gardeners want flavor and te

nderness," concludes Whealy.

Another great source of heirloom plants is the company Seeds of Change, which also sells a line of organic foods in natural marketplaces. Seeds of Change (now owned by the Mars food empire) was founded by Ken Ausubel, the award-winning author who also started the Bioneers Conference. The company offers more than 600 varieties of organically grown, mostly heirloom seeds for gardeners and more than 100 types of seeds in bulk amounts for farmers.

There is no debate that when it comes to food, we are what we eat. If we choose fresh, organic, locally grown crops we are supporting gardeners and farmers who choose to maintain our right to good food. Avoiding the environmental impact of international shipping, the exploitation of migrant and developing-nation workers, as well as unnecessary chemical exposure makes heirlooms and the preservation of our biodiversity a wise choice.

KIMBERLY JORDAN ALLEN is a freelance writer who buys into community-supported agriculture.