“Growing these seeds may seem like a small act, but it is such a powerful thing to do.” Jessica Snider, Nanaimo Community Gardens coordinator, is talking about heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables. Heritage varieties have been developed over the centuries by people saving seeds and handing them down through the generations. It began with wild plants but has resulted in all the variations we have today. While our grocery stores only offer a few types of fruits and vegetables, there are actually thousands of different varieties. However many are rapidly being lost, and the monocultures of large-scale agriculture put our food stock at risk to disease and insect attacks. A number of organizations are working to preserve and promote these endangered food crops, and you can help by growing these “heirloom” varieties in your own backyard.
According to Seeds of Diversity Canada there are over 40,000 cultivars of garden vegetables in North America alone. However, less than a quarter of these are available commercially. With no genetic or spacial boundaries to prevent disease and insect outbreaks, there is a huge risk involved with growing only a few cultivars country-wide. The Irish potato famine of 1845 is proof of this point. An introduced fungus spread through and destroyed the country’s genetically similar potato crops. The vast genetic diversity found in heritage crops can offer us protection against such threats.
Heritage varieties have been produced for far more worthy goals than most commercial crops. Commercial agriculture focuses on the ability of the produce to survive traveling long distances, to have a long shelf life, to look appealing, and for the ability to be harvested and processed mechanically. Hence the all too-familiar thick-skinned tomatoes that taste like plastic bags of water. Heritage varieties have been bred naturally for drought and insect resistance, to facilitate drying for storage, to produce more digestible protein or to enhance other nutritional values. They also offer a huge array of tastes, textures, and visual delights.
Our self-reliance and control over what we eat is quickly being lost due to commercial agriculture and genetic engineering. Most commercial varieties are hybrids, and many are also genetically engineered (GE), meaning that the seeds cannot be saved and grown. Of enormous concern is the development of GE terminator seeds, which prevent a plant from reproducing. It ensures bio-tech corporations future seed sales, but it does not help growers interested in self-sufficiency nor does it prevent the trait from passing onto other crops and wild plants. The possible implications can be frightening. The seeds from heritage varieties however are viable, non-genetically modified, and thus can ensure our food security, and environmental and personal health.
Seeds have traditionally been symbols for hope and new beginnings. They contain such potential and promise for new life. Heritage seeds offer even deeper meaning. They are a way to take back control of our food from agri-businesses and biotech corporations, and help to reduce our emissions from transporting foods across the country. Unlike processed ‘Mc-Heart-Attacks’ and ‘Transport-Tough Tomatoes’, heritage cultivars offer diversity in taste and texture, a healthy food source, and preserve our cultural heritage. They offer us self-sufficiency, preserve genetic diversity for future generations, and can satisfy our yearning for connection with our land and community. Whether you live on acreage, a small city lot, or have only the growing space of a balcony, you can bring heritage seeds and all that they represent into your life.