By Jeffrey Hollender
As the face of Seventh Generation and a leading advocate of corporate responsibility, I’m on the road more often than not. It’s a lifestyle with a lot of rewards but a garden isn’t one of them. I’m not around to weed and water and watch for bugs, so my home-grown produce has to come from Vermont’s many local farmers’ markets. It’s a great option and one I’m lucky to have, but I’d love to be able to grow food of my own choosing and experiment with some of the many heirloom vegetables that are increasingly available.
If you’ve never heard of heirlooms before, you’re in good company. In most kitchens, heirloom foods like Royal Purple Pod Pole Beans and Golden Sunday Tomatoes haven’t been seen for decades if not centuries. But that’s changing, and our world and its meals are much better off for it because these vegetables not only add tremendous flavor and nutrition to our meals, they preserve priceless genetic diversity.
Once upon a time, before seed companies and commercial agriculture, families and settlements grew most of their own food using seeds saved from the previous year’s harvest. Thanks to evolution and isolation, there were many varieties of a given fruit or vegetable, and seeds with desirable traits were traded the way kids trade baseball cards.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, mass-produced, hybrid, and genetically modified plants slowly took over farms and gardens, and reduced the diversity of the American table to just a few basic seed varieties. Heirloom vegetables faded into the background and were replaced in the mainstream by standardized offerings that promised earlier harvests, bigger yields, and blight resistance. People stopped saving seeds, and just purchased new ones each spring.
But some refused to play along, and in rural pockets all across America, generations of growers continued to carefully save their seeds each fall and faithfully plant them anew each year. In some instances, as heirlooms vanished, a single family’s dedication to a variety their ancestors grew was all that stood between that species and extinction.
These intrepid gardeners were doing very important work. Inside the genetic codes of heirloom seeds lie extra nutrition and more intense flavors, in addition to different colors and shapes. Hybrid and genetically-modified plants, the kind of vegetables that most gardeners grow today, have traded many of these characteristics away. They’ve swapped taste for a shorter growing season or nutrition for pest resistance. And the seeds they produce won’t grow into the same plant or won’t grow period, which means we have to buy new seeds or plants each year and can’t enjoy a self-sustaining food supply.
The most important legacy of heirloom foods, however, is one you can’t see or taste. Inside their DNA is an incalculably precious gene bank from which we can make vital withdrawals when disease and worse strike today’s mass-produced crops. When heirloom varieties disappear, they take these defenses with them. Lose too many of them and it’s our food supply itself that will ultimately be threatened.
With heirloom crops in our own gardens, we’re preserving biodiversity. And we’re feeding our families better, too. Count me among those who believe you’ve never really experienced a tomato until you’ve eaten a Brandywine. The situation is usually the same no matter what food we’re talking about. Store-bought types usually can’t compete, and heirloom choices almost always win the taste test, at least in my kitchen.
Heirlooms may take a little extra effort to seek out and grow, but they’re worth it. Your garden will be a much more adventurous place and your menus will be a lot more interesting. Add it all up and you get exactly the kind of healthier, more sustainable harvest the environment needs us all to reap.
Jeffrey Hollender is co-author of the recently published book, The Responsibility Revolution and Co-Founder and Executive Chair of Seventh Generation. He is also the author of the leading blog on corporate responsibility, InspiredProtagonist.com, and a co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council, as well as the Sustainability Institute.
photo credit: thanks to daveeza via flickr