Review: Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity

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Review: Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity By Virginia D. Nazarea Reviewed by Dan Tufford University of South Carolina, Columbia, USA Nazarea, Virginia D. Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2005. 193 pp. 0-8165-2435-1 (Cloth). US$35.00.

Do heirloom seeds and the network of seedsavers make a quantifiable difference in genetic diversity that is large enough to pay attention to? It is clear that there has been substantial homogenization of agriculture on both a national and a global scale. There is also ample evidence that wild species of both plants and animals make significant genetic contributions to human health and welfare. But heirloom food crops represent a different aspect of the issue. They are not actually wild yet they possess genotypic and phenotypic characteristics that are not in the varieties that dominate the agricultural marketplace.

Gardeners and small-scale farmers choose to grow heirloom varieties for many reasons, from personal historical connections to the seeds to philosophical concerns about the proliferation of hybrid or genetically modified strains. Further interest results from intersections with the organic and locally grown food movements, local history, and interest in culinary variety. The cultural roots of the heirloom seed movement are varied, encompassing immigration patterns, rural gardening practices, and the back-to-nature movement. In the Internet era it does not take a great deal of effort to uncover rich and deep expressions of a vibrant, passionate, and energetic (though loosely organized) culture surrounding the protection and proliferation of heirloom varieties. But from all appearances the vast majority of human civilization- certainly western civilization-is indifferent to the erosion of local food ways if not actively engaged in the erosive processes.

Among the relevant scientific issues are the availability of genetic diversity and the genetic purity and history of strains that, in some instances, are grown and stored with inadequate attention to cross typing. The historical dimensions of the issue are too numerous to list here, but for me one of the most interesting is the link between the geographic origins of domestic foods and their current variety and development in various cultures. So it was with great interest that I read Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers. The author, Virginia Nazarea, is an anthropologist with considerable background in the role of agriculture both in individual and cultural memory and in practice. The work that she and her colleagues have done in the Philippines, Ecuador, the southern United States, and with Vietnamese émigrés to Georgia and Florida, is reviewed and synthesized throughout the book. As a result of her work Nazarea has come to believe that heirloom seedsavers are indeed a potent force for biodiversity conservation. But the effect of seedsavers' activities cannot be observed at the macro-scale that is typical of most studies of agriculture, biodiversity, culture, or conservation. The book is well organized and very well written, and offers compelling insights. It seeks to break through the "disturbing rigidity, linearity, and normativeness in current approaches" to biodiversity conservation and the "unfortunate failure of nerve" that characterizes our acceptance of this linearity. These are strong words and they are supported with an amazing array of stories and insights.

Nazarea states that her "intention in this book is to explore a road, not necessarily less taken but certainly less recognized, in the conservation of biodiversity." In the case of agriculture, biodiversity conservation is primarily about countering the hegemony of the monoculture imperative and its support structure, or as she puts it, "the perceived immorality of variation in the field. …