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What's the Deal with Heirlooms?

Over the last couple of decades, a nostalgic nerve has been triggered by the rising popularity of “heirloom” fruits and vegetables and “heritage” meats in the gourmet food world. If you stroll through a local farmer’s market or peruse a fancy restaurant menu in any of the nation’s urban centers these days, you will likely find these foodie buzzwords posted prominently to woo discerning customers.

My fear is that the idea of an “heirloom” tomato or “heritage” pig conjures a fictitious pastoral image of life as it somehow used to be. The obsession with heirloom foods is concerning to me as it shows how easily we can fall prey to nostalgic narratives such as the pernicious one that currently threatens to split our nation apart: that somehow we can “make America great again” if we just magically go back in time.

Current politics aside, it’s time to look forward, not back. The integrity of our global food system depends on our ability to preserve genetic diversity – and heirloom plant varieties and heritage animal breeds are part of that gene bank. More important than preserving specific plant and animal varieties, however, is allowing our crops and animals to adapt and evolve over time, mutating within each new generation, and this can only occur through a mixing of genes, not isolating them or somehow trying to keep them “pure.”

So why am I so fixated on the words “heirloom” and “heritage” as qualifiers for our foods? First of all, both happen to have fuzzy, unscientific definitions. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an heirloom crop as “a variety of plant that has originated under cultivation and that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.” Heritage breeds are the animal equivalents of heirloom plants – the Livestock Conservancy defines heritage breeds as “traditional breeds that were raised by our forefathers.”

I believe that if we sincerely intend to be “food-literate” – to know what we are eating and how it impacts our health and the world around us – we must begin to be more scientific and less nostalgic when referring to our food. Specifically, we must clarify that whether something is an heirloom or not matters less than whether or not the seed saving and breeding programs are actually maximizing the number of genetically unique offspring within a population.

The best example of a genetically diverse domesticated plant type is an open-pollinated crop variety. These are crops for which the exchange of pollen between individuals within a particular species is not controlled or limited. Open-pollination leads to a maximum number of genetically unique offspring. According to Seed Savers Exchange, “This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year.” Technically, all heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated crops are heirlooms.

The heirloom/heritage craze has also completely overshadowed the value of hybrid crop varieties in our food system. Hybrids, genetic “crosses” between two distinct species, or two varieties within a species, are extremely valuable for growers and ranchers because they are often more vigorous, productive and pest- or disease-resistant than the heirlooms and heritage varieties are. The vigor regularly observed in hybrids is a result of their mixed genetic makeup.

Two notable hybrid tomatoes are the “Sun Gold” cherry and “Early Girl” slicing tomatoes. Both are “F1,” or “first filial generation,” hybrid tomato varieties, which are often marketed as heirlooms, but actually are not! They just happen to be two colorful, delicious (and profitable!) tomato varieties that farmers often sell alongside their heirlooms.

A lesser-known hybrid crop, Kernza is a perennial grain that is currently being developed by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas through a rapidly-sequenced breeding program (not to be construed with genetic engineering). Kernza and other perennial seed crops are being bred at the Land Institute with the intent of restoring the historic prairie environment while providing food for humans and animals. Land Institute founder, Wes Jackson, calls this “ecologically intensified polyculture.” These seed crops are quite possibly the most revolutionary of hybrid crops being developed, as they hold the potential to completely upend the nutrient extractive, water polluting, soil degrading paradigm of current seed crop production (think corn, soy, wheat, rice, sunflower, canola, etc.). Yes, we need our hybrids too.

Selective breeding (also referred to as artificial selection) is the method humans have employed since the dawn of agriculture in order to create plants and animals that serve our needs more effectively. Selective breeding involves humans intentionally breeding plants or animals with similar characteristics and selecting the offspring with preferred traits for breeding future generations. One major drawback of selective breeding, is it that it actually can drain the “gene pool” – while providing us with a plant or animal whose characteristics we like, the population as a whole might become more vulnerable to a particular intervening variable, such as a blight or virus because of its lack of genetic diversity. This is how our heirloom crops and heritage breeds were initially bred by our “forefathers,” which helps to explain their tendency to not be as vigorous as hybrid varieties.

In summary, we know that diversity ensures resilience in living systems. And we’re living in times of accelerated ecological upheaval of global consequence – quite likely, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert has asserted, the beginning of the sixth “great extinction” in the history of planet Earth. The rapid loss of genetic diversity in the world around us should be concerning to us all. And no, genetic engineering technology is not going to allow us to “hack” our way out of this dilemma. Nor is a fixation on “heirloom” and “heritage” breeds merely because they are genetically more “pure” and originated a long time ago. Instead, as farmers, gardeners and consumers, we must clearly focus our efforts on driving the demand for genetically diverse fruits, seeds, vegetables and animal products. The resilience of our food system will depend on it.


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