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From Past to Present: Why Heirloom Varietals Matter

Jul. 25, 2013

By Lee Greene, Scrumptious Pantry

A decade ago “heirloom” triggered images of your grandfather’s pocket watch or the delicate veil your great-grandmother wore at her wedding. Talk about “heirloom” nowadays and images of luscious tomatoes in the colors of the rainbow appear before your eyes. Heirloom veggies have become a staple around farmers markets and even in some quality supermarkets you will be able to find striped Chioggia Beets or tri-colored carrots.

The word “heirloom” describes “a family treasure, passed down through generations.” As such, some smart folks started using it to describe vegetable and fruit varieties whose seeds still represent the varietals in their original form: before hybrid-breeding and before genetically modified organisms (GMO). So how did we get from one to the other?

Understanding Heirloom Terminology

American Heirloom BountyHeirlooms: Farmers have always been selectively breeding: By choosing the strongest plant or the one with the best yield, they developed seed stock that was best adapted to their land, its microclimate and soil conditions and promised a plentiful harvest. These varieties, which have been kept alive by generations of farmers, are open-pollinated and at least 50 years old are usually called “heirlooms.”

Hybrids: This is produce bred from two genetically different parents in order to create a new variety with specific traits. For example, a plant with exceptional yield is crossbred with one that has superior disease resistance. While hybrids are usually the result of a lab situation, it is a process that could have occurred in nature.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): GMOs cross absolutely unrelated species, nothing that could ever happen in a natural setting. Example: In order to create a tomato with frost resistance, scientists inserted genes from the winter flounder (note: no GMO tomatoes are currently commercially cultivated).

Rediscovering Variety

Most of the vegetables grown commercially are hybrids as they allow farmers to grow more efficiently with increased yield, disease resistance, uniformity of fruit and shelf life. Unfortunately, for all this progress we had to sacrifice something along the way: flavor, nutritional value and biodiversity. Tomatoes are now bred so they can be shipped green and ripen on a truck – flavor stopped being the tomato’s raison d’être. Research also points to a loss of nutritional value.

Most importantly, though, we are losing variety. “The trend for hybrids has dramatically reduced biodiversity worldwide,” said Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Food USA. “In the United States alone an estimated 90 percent of our fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. This is not only a cultural loss, but it is posing a great risk for food security.”

Luckily, many eaters are rediscovering the variety of textures, flavors and smells that heirloom varietals offer us, motivating farmers to experiment with heirlooms for commercial production. Heirlooms are also in high demand by home gardeners. “I’ve always grown heirloom-only gardens with great success,” says LaManda Joy, award-winning community garden organizer with the Chicago-based Peterson Garden Project and author of The Yarden. “Heirlooms aren’t limited to tomatoes. There are lots of things you can plant now to enjoy in the fall... purple Brussels sprouts (Red Rubine), beautiful white chard (Italian Silver) and curved yellow beans (Sultan’s Golden Crescent).”

Pick up the quirky looking veggies at the market, experiment with heirloom varieties in your garden and enjoy the world of flavor that comes with biodiversity. Are you ready to heirloom?

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