June 22nd, 2011
07:00 PM ET
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As long as Eatocracy has been around, we've been evangelizing for heirloom vegetables. It's not just that they're generally bred for exquisite flavor and variety, rather than durability and uniformity; they're also a link to our past and may very well determine the future of our food system.

As Southern chef Sean Brock says, "These ingredients tell stories about families, regions and the lessons we’ve learned from everyone else. They tell history. They tell about time and place. They enlighten us."

Charles Siebert writes in Food Ark in the July issue of National Geographic magazine, that while we are lucky to have these seeds - and breeds of animal - without swift and deliberate action to ensure our future food supply, we're in danger of losing it all.

"Heirloom vegetables have become fashionable in the United States and Europe over the past decade, prized by a food movement that emphasizes eating locally and preserving the flavor and uniqueness of heirloom varieties. Found mostly in farmers markets and boutique groceries, heirloom varieties have been squeezed out of supermarkets in favor of modern single-variety fruits and vegetables bred to ship well and have a uniform appearance, not to enhance flavor. But the movement to preserve heirloom varieties goes way beyond America's renewed romance with tasty, locally grown food and countless varieties of tomatoes. It's also a campaign to protect the world's future food supply."

"Most of us in the well-fed world give little thought to where our food comes from or how it's grown. We steer our shopping carts down supermarket aisles without realizing that the apparent bounty is a shiny stage set held up by increasingly shaky scaffolding. We've been hearing for some time about the loss of flora and fauna in our rain forests. Very little, by contrast, is being said or done about the parallel erosion in the genetic diversity of the foods we eat."

"Food varieties extinction is happening all over the world—and it's happening fast. In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. In the Philippines thousands of varieties of rice once thrived; now only up to a hundred are grown there. In China 90 percent of the wheat varieties cultivated just a century ago have disappeared. Experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world's food varieties over the past century. As for the 8,000 known livestock breeds, 1,600 are endangered or already extinct."

"Why is this a problem? Because if disease or future climate change decimates one of the handful of plants and animals we've come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we've let go extinct."

Read Food Ark in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands June 28.

Previously - Heirloom tomatoes explained and Five Reasons to Use Heirloom Ingredients: Sean Brock and Grow your own heirlooms at home

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Paul Heald

    except for the fact that the RAFI study Siebert relies upon has been discredited and recent studies show an increase in crop diversity in the twentieth century and his apple data is completely incorrect . . . to see the raw numbers that he misses check out: "Crop Diversity Report Card for the Twentieth Century: Diversity Bust or Diversity Boom?" at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1462917 and "Apple Diversity Report Card" at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1543336.

    June 30, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  2. Soleada

    I would eat heirlopm veggies & beef but the farmers market here is a gopd 30 min away.... Cant really afford the gas in my budget

    June 25, 2011 at 2:09 am |
  3. Sarah

    I enjoyed the article, and think that preserving biodiversity is extremely important. However, I think it is equally important to mention part of the reason why diversity in varieties is shrinking so rapidly. The big picture issue is the recent onset of genetically modified plants and seeds that are controlled (and OWNED) by corporations such as Monsanto. These seeds find their way into even organic crops, and Monsanto has bullied many small farmers into using them–along with their pesticides–in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere. Monsanto has even gone so far as to sue farmers whose crops become mixed with their seeds carried by the wind. Monsanto has purchased hundreds of thousands of seeds and now holds legal rights to these seeds, and therefore specific species and varieties of plants (e.g., corn).

    It is worthwhile to watch the documentary "The Future of Food" and read up on these issues.

    June 23, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • LaLa

      Thanks – I was just about to post the very same thing. It's beyond me how a company can hold the patent on heirloom varieties it did nothing to develop. And then to take those varieties out of circulation ? Evil.

      June 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • LuLu

      Awesome response!! Another good one to watch is Food Inc.

      It baffles me that people will spend $40k+ on a car, but nourish their bodies and their families with the most inexpensive, over processed, chemically altered crap.

      @LaLa, like your name.

      June 23, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  4. Evil Grin

    Why isn't this the breakout thread of the day? This is the issue we need to be talking about, after all.

    June 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
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