National Geographic and Heirlooms

When I was a kid my grandfather saw it fitting to give my little brother and me a subscription to National Geographic as a Christmas present every year. The anticipation of pulling off the plastic sheathing to get at the contents hidden beneath the iconic yellow cover was a once a month event that became as ritualistic as anything can be in a child’s life, especially after my grandfather’s death.

These days my magazine subscriptions run less in the vein of science and exploration and more in-line with my profession; Gastronomica, the Art of Eating, Edible Boston, Saveur; but National Geographic still finds its way into the mix. This month a funny thing happened. Nestled between an article on the Middle East and one on Portugal’s only National Park was an article titled “Food Ark: Preserving heirloom seeds and breeds is crucial if we are to feed our hungry world.” National Geographic, my only non-profession-related reading suddenly became immensely relevant.

The article opens:

A crisis is looming: to feed our growing population, we’ll need to double food production. Yet crop yields aren’t increasing fast enough, and climate change and new diseases threaten the limited varieties we’ve come to depend on for food. Luckily we still have the seeds and breeds to ensure our future food supply –but we must take steps to save them.

After giving a  nod to the Seed Savers Exchange, author Charles Siebert shrewdly notes, “Most of us in the well-fed world give little thought to where our food comes from or how it’s grown.” The fact is, as the article points out, that “in the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetables varieties have vanished.” And in the world at large, we’ve lost more than 50 percent of food varieties in the last century alone.

Siebert quotes Rick Ward of Cornell as saying “a significant humanitarian crisis is inevitable.” He’s talking about wheat production, more specifically the strain of stem rust known as Ug99 “a virulent and fast mutating strain” that at least 90 percent of the world’s wheat is defenseless against. But the fact of the matter is that “the world has become increasingly dependent upon technology-driven, one-size-fits-all solutions to its problems.” Ug99 is certainly becoming more the rule than the exception, points out Seibert.  “The best hope for securing food’s future may depend on our ability to preserve the locally cultivated foods of the past,” he writes.

And herein lies the real heart of the issue. While the article goes on to point out the benefits of heritage breeds and heirlooms seeds, touches on the green revolution, on seed banks, and on the success of local varieties of seeds in Ethiopia, the most important point is that food security depends on biodiversity and localized solutions. Too often advocates for local sourcing and local knowledge are dismissed as luddites or elitist “foodies.”

But unlike my nostalgia  for National Geographic because of its ties to my grandfather, embracing heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds isn’t a way to look back. It’s a way to look forward. A way to recognize the inherent knowledge of agriculture and taste cultivated by years of technical sharing and know how among communities is a way to strengthen our food systems and our world.

—Rob Booz, network coordinator

Posted by: Chefs Collaborative

2 Responses to “National Geographic and Heirlooms”

  1. Patrick Beck Says:

    Hey Rob:

    Well stated my friend. I also grew up in a house full of National Geographics. I recall making fortresses of them as a kid and reading for hours, realizing I had no interest in learning how to fix a car engine but knowing I had plants and planets and distant peoples all within reach. Dad renewed the subscription every year and there was a point well into my college days when I had every issue since 1960 (some of which I had inherited) until they disappeared like 80% of our radish varieties during one of my apartment moves. “Food Ark” is a wonderful scary story that points to a critical moment in our collapsing society. The industrial food production model that supports the population shift away from the farm into consumer service sector requires high energy inputs that have negative public health, social and environmental costs. It is all going to end soon via war or famine – take your pick – whether we like it or not.

    Did you notice the Silver Fox and Red Devon photos. I raise both of those breeds and have some going to slaughter next week if you want to have a taste of history.

  2. Luigi Guarino Says:

    I’m sorry to say that standards have slipped at National Geographic of late: http://agro.biodiver.se/2011/06/not-all-andean-tubers-are-potatoes/. A great pity.

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