Friday, May 2, 2008


Some people think "heirloom" is just another word for "fancy," not realizing the great importance of preserving our heritage crops, admittedly a tiny sliver of the biodiversity of the earth that is rapidly decreasing, but one that is easy to relate to: you can taste the sweetness of saving and reintroducing these seeds and breeds. In this context, a heirloom is not necessarily a plant passed down through generations like a locket or a set of candle sticks, but rather an open-pollinated cultivar. Open pollination is pollination by natural means: via insects, birds or the wind. Because breeding is uncontrolled and the pollen (male) plant unknown, open pollination results in increased variety in genetic traits and, indeed, increased biodiversity. This method was commonplace before industrial agriculture took hold. Before industrial ag's vast monoculture farms cloaked the countryside, a much wider variety of crops were raised, crops which were often deeply rooted in their particular terroir, having adapted over time to their particular soil and climate conditions. 

(photo credit: NY Times)

Kim Severson's recent story in the Times spoke to the idea of raising -- and eating -- heirloom and heritage species to keep them from going extinct. She references Gary Paul Nabhan's new book, Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods (Chelsea Green), which explores the stories behind 93 endangered ingredients central to American culture and recipes that use them. The idea is that you've got to eat something to save it -- unless of course that something, like the flying squirrel, is so endangered that it needs to be left alone for a bit. This article made me think back to the biodiversity class I took last year, in which we learned about conservation efforts that people were making to artificially bring scattered populations of orangutans, say, together in an effort to enlarge the gene pool in which they were cross-pollinating. It strikes me as strange -- if hugely important -- that we are taking strides to reconnect these small, isolated animal communities, mostly because it is of course due to humanity's own actions, in the form of rain forest deforestation or what might simply be called suburbia, that they became displaced. My biodiversity professor seemed certain that humans' time on earth was extremely limited, especially at the rate we are now polluting the planet. It is awfully sad how we as a species are the most destructive force on the planet, and how without humans, all of the other animal and plant kingdoms would seemingly flourish, keeping each other in check.

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