The very idea of eating a carrot that is possibly the same as Jesus Christ ate, or beans that were on one of the first ships that landed in America (before it was America) is unique and romantic. Eating food that has been passed down from generation to generation as a precious gift, is something that most people do not think about, it’s just not important in today’s age. One can easily walk into the grocer and pick up a bunch of carrots or tomatoes without a second thought of how those carrots got to the shelf.
In days gone by, almost every household had a veggie garden and grew at least a few food items. The seeds that were used were open pollinated and heirloom seeds that they had saved, shared and swapped with neighbours friends and relatives. Only the best was considered worthwhile and the home gardener would specifically select those that produced well, were tasty and disease resistant. This was because 50 or 100 years ago we did not have the plethora of fungicides, pesticides and various assortments of chemicals for dealing out indiscriminate death to the malicious critter that dared to snack on “our” food.
Gardeners and farmers in days gone by used mixtures of soap, garlic and natural elements like sulphur and copper (you know… substances that actually have a number on the periodic table) that occur in nature to help them combat their common garden pests. In today’s world of new is better, we have chemicals that have lingering effects on soil for over 15 years, rendering the soil unfit for any type of food production.
OK back to heirlooms…. as I was saying, only seed from the best plants were saved. From this selection our renowned heirlooms were formed. I say formed as the continuous selection of plants and fruit caused distinct varieties to be created. These varieties sometimes created a cult-like following where gardeners made sure that every year they planted at least a few of these plants, so distinct and superior was the flavour and production of these plants.
In addition to the above, disease resistance was also important. What point would a well flavoured vegetable be if it succumbed to environmental stresses and pests before it could produce fruit? Now, I’m not saying that heirlooms are more disease resistant than hybrids (often they are not). Hybrids have been bred specifically for certain traits. Chief amongst these is disease resistance. In the process of creating a “good disease package” flavour is the hardest to keep and is not reliant on a single gene that can be turned on or off, much to the dismay of the GM market.
The biggest difference with heirlooms and hybrids is the genetic diversity of the individual variety. Let’s take a look at corn or as we South Africans prefer to call them…. mielies. In the Eastern Cape it was estimated that there were over 300 different landraces of mielies grown by individual communities. These landraces were distinctive in the fact that each community that lived in the isolated valleys saved and planted their seed for generations. Over time distinctive varieties were produced that could thrive in the unique microclimates where they were grown. This was only possible due to the inherent genetic diversity that was available in the original seed that was planted, this allowed natural selection (by nature and man) to winnow out the mielies to a point where each valley in the eastern cape had a distinctive variety that was accustomed to the specific environmental stresses that that valley experienced.
With Monsanto’s “upliftment” program (aided by our myopic government) they have been handing out “free seed” that has all but destroyed these unique varieties. The seed supplied has come from a very narrow gene pool where it has been engineered, re-engineered, hybridised and modified to a point where almost no genetic diversity remains in the seed to allow for unusual circumstances. One good example is as follows.
All of the GM and hybrid seed is currently being designed for today’s environmental conditions. With ‘climate change’ (the scientists have not quite decided if it’s warming or cooling) if there are any severe changes, all of the seed currently in production by the big GM houses will be worthless to farmers, no matter what chemicals they might desire to throw at them. Where do you think that will leave the average consumer that would like to eat a meal occasionally?
Heirlooms are our genetic guarantee of future food supply. No matter what nature cares to throw at us, if you have a handful of heirloom seeds you can be assured that firstly you can plant the seed, secondly you are able to save the seed for the following year and thirdly, if environmental conditions change the plant will have the internal genetic diversity available to adapt via natural selection. Something that cannot be said for any hybrid or GM seed.
It is interesting to note that ALL hybrids and GM crops have their roots in heirloom and open pollinated seed. Heirlooms were (and still are) used by breeders to create hybrids and GM crops. Heirlooms are the original source of their technology. So when you see a seed house or article denigrating the heirloom or OP vegetable, know that they have used these selfsame vegetables to create their frankenfoods.
So do I believe that heirlooms are important? Yes, without a doubt! We seed savers are literally the protectors of vegetable genetic diversity. One day scientists could call out to home gardeners to provide real vegetable seed that will feed the world, because the GM seed houses are busy engineering themselves and the farmers into a blind corner, and they can’t see what conditions are waiting around the bend. Look after your heirlooms and share them, the world may one day need them!