Written by: Kirsten Hudson for Organic Authority
Handed down through generations, heirloom seeds offer a taste of the past. Often described as “open pollinated” seeds that have a long history, heirloom seeds can make for a diverse and downright gorgeous, organic garden. Like a family keepsake, these seeds offer something precious. Once planted, they’ll bloom into a one-of-a-kind fruit, vegetable, herb or flower that hasn’t been tainted by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or pesticides.
Modern hybrids, which are created by crossing two selected varieties, often produce infertile plants. But heirlooms will yield the same plant year after year, which means you can always save the seeds for next year’s crop. Heirlooms also offer a connection with history. Essentially, you’ll be eating the same plump tomatoes that your ancestors enjoyed.
So, what else makes these vintage seeds inherently superior?
Many hybrid fruits and vegetables have been bred to produce more crop, or to resist certain diseases and insects. Unfortunately, these “features” often sacrifice taste in the process.
Plants from heirloom seeds weren’t designed to be carted across the country or hoarded in cold storage for weeks, like many commercially grown fruits and vegetables. Instead, heirlooms were carefully selected for their flavor. After all, who wants to go out to their backyard garden and pick a bunch of carrots that taste like cardboard?
And once you’ve tasted a juicy heirloom tomato, it’s unlikely you’ll ever think the same about a supermarket tomato again.
With heirlooms, taste and nutrition go together. You can’t get much fresher than just picked-off-the-vine or pulled-from-the-dirt fruits and veggies—and that means maximum nutrition.
Hybrids, however, have been bred for certain traits—such as producing higher yields—that sacrifice nutritional content in the process. The traits that make carrots, potatoes and other produce uniform in size and faster growing can also mean a lower quality food.
Heirloom fruits and veggies come in an all-out medley of kooky shapes, colors and textures. From deep red carrots to wonky-shaped tomatoes to bright pink bananas, you just can’t get the same fun variety from hybrid fruits and vegetables.
By choosing to plant heirloom seeds, you’re participating in a mission to diversify our food supply and preserve cultural history. As commercial growers increasingly opt to only plant a small variety of species, we’re losing genetic diversity in our seeds, and therefore our food. This can potentially compromise the nutritional value of our food, lead to issues with soil in farming and potential food blights. Couple that with the increasing GMOs introduced into our produce and it’s a potential recipe for disaster… convinced yet?
Several organizations offer GMO- and pesticide-free heirloom seeds. Browse their catalogs and get excited for this year’s garden!
Follow Kirsten on Twitter @kirsten_hudson
Eating is one the many fundamental actions, for life, that everyone shares. What people eat is what drastically differentiates us from other cultures and the very thing that brings us together with like-minded foodies. We are living in a time where a lot of attention is being focused on food, whether it is the amount we are eating, the quality, how miles it has traveled and of course whether it has been genetically altered. Whatever your interest in food may be, we are living in an exhilarating time in the history of food.
Despite that 1 in 3 Americans is obese and most food found in our supermarkets, if it is not organic, is genetically modified, there is a food revolution happening in the midst of all of this.
As we know, we began as hunters and gatherers. Eating and cooking solely what we could hunt and harvest. Through time, technology and the advancements of the industrial revolution things changed dramatically. We began canning, preserving and freezing.
Today, most Americans take very little regard in what they eat, how it is processed, what is in it and most of all, how much of it they eat. The irony is how much of our eating habits have changed drastically in a mere 100 years. From our food supply, quantity and nutritional content, to the amount of imported goods we consume. Perhaps a simple way of addressing this is we went from viewing food as a sacred commodity to a simplified convenience.
While most of America has accepted that we moved from an agricultural society to industrialized agriculture and embracing that fact that most of our food travels 1500 miles – there is a huge subculture that has sprouted up globally. This movement touts local, seasonal and organic – backyards are being converted into food forests and front lawns are being torn up to make way for urban gardens!
The movement has taken root in all of America’s largest cities, while infiltrating small towns and growing communities. It is taking shape in the form of expanding farmers markets, community gardens, edible school yards and even homesteading. There are several large installations of some of these applications found in places like NY MOMA’s infamous indie art museum known as PS1. Annually there is a competition of young architects at the opportunity to build an oasis during their summer installation. Winners, several years ago, built an urban farm, producing food and raising chickens, right in the middle of Queens!
In the San Francisco Civic Center - the entire front lawn has been replaced with a garden, in time for the Slow Food festival – and the harvest will coincide with festivities all through Labor Day in 2009.
In downtown Los Angeles, there is an annual Public Fruit Jam in Echo Park – where an art gallery was opened to the public to bring local fruit to make jars of fresh jam. I attended a few years ago and I brought in green sour apples from my backyard, coupled with figs, lemons and mint to create this outrageous homemade jam!
So what are the advantages to eating local and seasonal?
With local food there are much lower energy costs and the nutritional value of your food is much higher, since the crop was not harvested early. Most of all, you are supporting your local farmers, your community and a really incredible movement that is taking shape and coming soon to your community!
Swapping recipes, seeds and gardening tips are no longer a thing of the past, but rather a really hip and obvious thing to be doing, now!
Don’t have a yard? Fret not … food in pots grows incredible varieties! Don’t have time or the patience to grow your own? There are Community Supported Agriculture known as CSA’s – where you can have a box of beautiful organic fruits and veggies grown in a local farm delivered to your door weekly! Check out Local Harvest to see where your local CSA is.
There is that classic adage that you are what you eat. The reality is that our habits around food have lost their value – and now more than ever, is a critical time to begin asking the right questions and being aware of what you are consuming and most of all, knowing where your food comes from.
We are finding ourselves relying on our community as well as our neighbors. In essence we are adopting the ways of our ancestors. The need to continue to push the envelope all while looking back and taking in the strides taken by our predecessors!
Seed saving and seed knowledge became an integral and sacred part of ancient and modern civilizations. A ritual that was naturally passed on from generation to generation, from neighbor to neighbor. Seeds became such an innate and valued part of civilization that they were used as a form of currency throughout the world. Seeds were considered a fundamental part of every day life.
For 12,000 thousands years, our ancestors labored over cultivating wild varieties, to arrive at varieties with the perfect texture, taste, vigor and resistance, all while adapting them to their location and climate. This genetic diversity was characterized by countries, regions and towns – which with its own characteristic and flavor. There was a time when we marveled at the rich distinction between communities and cultures for their seed stock & food varieties.
Many culinary distinctions are still seen throughout our country and throughout the world. It is these flavors and these foods that give a place its heritage, its culture and a palpable expression of a place. It is the biodiversity of a region reflected in form that we can savor.
Up until very recent history, we had approximately 7, 000 different species of plants, raised as food crops. Even in North America alone, Native Americans used an astounding 3,000 – 5,000 food plants. Since 1903, we have lost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties, a loss that is being experienced throughout the world at every dinner table. This change in recent history has brought about a homogenization of our global diet, creating a one size fits all model that is suppressing cultures throughout the globe. Today 15 plant and 8 animal species are now relied upon for about 90% of all human food.
Disease or climate change can decimate 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.
Seeds are the storehouse for the history and evolution of man-kind. Seeds are the first and last link to the food chain. It is in the seed that life resides. Seeds are a miracle that can self-replicate hundred of times, each time becoming stronger, more resilient and adapted to a local region. Seeds are the natural expression of life – abundant and free and they are the ultimate expression of the development of humanity and civilization. Seeds were carried over borders, on horses and boats, sown in seams or stashed in pockets. Plants and seeds have used animals and humans for the advancement of their own specie and the dissemination of its own genes.
Throughout history, humans have been selecting the strongest, diverse, best tasting and most desirable plants and saving their seeds for propagation for future generations. The genetic pool evolved with the careful selecting and saving of seeds, thus began the relationship between farmers and the magic of the seed. Farmers realized, that by saving seeds from the most vigorous plants, they would be conserving and selecting the genetic diversity of the strongest plants, naturally passing that DNA to their offspring, resulting in stronger yields and tastier crops.
Over time, farmers began to breed and propagate varieties that were specific to their heritage and region, writing their history through food and sharing it with their seeds. These seeds began to adapt to their particular regions, soils, weather and even to the farmers themselves. The brilliance of the seed is demonstrated in the act of precise adaptability to its environs while building a genetic bank that is unique and site specific. Year after year, the vigor of these plants continues to strengthen, creating prized seeds that begin to tell a story of themselves.
Each seed variety carries a story, a story of dedication, love and care. These stories are usually associated with the seeds and passed on, for generations where they begin to be referred to as heirloom seeds – seeds with a lineage, seeds with a story.
Saved seeds were traded among neighbors and communities, thus preserving genetic and biodiversity of a region. But as elders passed away, these heirloom varieties were being lost or forgotten. There has been an erosion in the diversity of the foods we eat and in the tradition of specialty varieties has been declining while heirloom crops are getting lost in a mire of corporate hybrids. Thousands of native and heirloom varieties have disappeared and continue to do so. We must celebrate the cultural significance of endangered plant species and preserve them.
We have seen Indigenous displacement and the need to retain seeds as the cultural value and as the mandala of a culture. Honoring a time-old tradition that involves self sustenance and food and seed sovereignty. It is said that the best hope for securing food’s future may depend on our ability to preserve the locally cultivated foods of the past.
“Learn about how the Government has affected our eating habits and its unintentional effects on the American appetite.” [Exhibit preview blurb]
What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet is a fascinating exhibit, partially sponsored by the Mars, Inc. (Seeds of Change). It reveals archives of records, photographs, videos and posters from the holdings of the National Archives in Washington DC. The exhibit intricately sows the seeds of how our government has been involved in the nourishment of the American people and how we have been protected from some of the atrocities that were attempted to by pulled off by profiteers. The exhibit begins around the time of the Revolutionary War and spans to the late 1990′s.
The exhibit is broken down into four sections from Farm, Factory, Kitchen to Table. With each section tracing how food has been intrinsically involved with the development of our food culture. Through each section, we learn how our government has brought about regulation to keep concerns of food safety and regulation at bay. Every industry from factory farming to candy production, was the recipient of intense scrutiny and management, eliminating things such as Bred Spred which was a new and improved coal-tar spread for your morning toast! Posters such as the Vitamin Donut, demonstrate how propaganda was used to influence the diet of a people who at a time were conforming to what was determined to be the best for us.
In the 1830′s Congress enacted a seed giveaway program, whose intentions were to broaden what American farmers grew, by introducing and testing rare plant varieties, found all over the world. By the time the program had reached 30 years, it was distributing 1.1 billion free seed packets of common vegetables and flower varieties to farmers and gardeners throughout America. During this time of trialing new varieties, the United States was also sending plant hunters to reaches of the world. These gentlemen were set on voyages to discover new fruit, herbs and vegetable varieties, unknown to most. Many of these excursions gave us many of the staples we use to this day, such as the Meyer lemon, that is native to China and was brought to us by agricultural explorer Frank Nicholas Meyer in 1908.
In the mid 1920′s, farmers could tune into radio programs such as The United States Radio Farm School and Farm Flashes, one of many examples that brought to light how our government was supporting its agricultural roots and encouraging agrarian knowledge to be prolific. A theory that can be highly debated these days with several controversial food subsidies, corporate interest versus family farm and now the cross-pollination of genetically modified organisms (GMO) throughout fields and farms all over America, to name a few.
There is a lot of information, provided we seek it. For those that do not, or simply choose not to, are cast under the spell that the higher authorities know what is best and are here to protect our health and well-being. Understanding where our food comes from, how it is grown and where it is grown, empowers us as consumers and by-products of the food system. Growing our own food will only deepen that empowerment. Growing our own food from seed and saving our own seed will give us freedom and sovereignty.