Edible History: Discovering the Benefits of Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables

By Allen, Kimberly Jordan | E Magazine, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Edible History: Discovering the Benefits of Heirloom Fruits and Vegetables


Allen, Kimberly Jordan, E Magazine


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 counter-cultural 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.

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