|Growing heirloom vegetables is tremendously popular with many home gardeners, as those varieties are considered more flavorful than today’s hybrids. But there’s a lot more to think about than just a tastier tomato for your burger.
Food crops native to the Americas have, and are continuing to undergo significant changes, as a result of hybridization, genetic modification, loss of habitat and climate change. Preserving plant biodiversity by recognizing the value of those “forgotten” crops is important to our future.
Not to suggest that tomatoes, corn, or other oft-consumed vegetables are forgotten. In the opinion of some, they may have received too much, or at least the wrong kind of attention from breeders. Both hybridization and genetic engineering have the potential to create food with better flavor, higher nutrient value, and less reliance on fertilization.
More often, however, breeders of agricultural crops concentrate on what will reap the most profit—higher yields, uniform plants, and better shipping and storage performance. Additionally, those hybrid seeds cost more, and must be bought anew each year.
And did you know that some crops are now genetically modified to withstand being sprayed with herbicides? That means that the whole field, including the food plants, can be sprayed with weed killers, but only the weeds will die—not what the end consumer would likely consider a benefit.
Alas, what can we do? Growing as much of your own food as possible is one answer. The cultivation of heirloom varieties is supported by seed saving organizations, such as Seed Savers Exchange, Landreth’s, Baker’s Creek Seeds and others that specialize in open-pollinated varieties. You can search for companies that have taken the “Safe Seed Pledge,” a promise not to sell GMO seeds.
You can also decide where to spend your money. That “weed-killer” company merged with another large company in 2018, resulting in the capture of an approximate 40% share of the US seed market, via the seed company Seminis. If you would prefer not to patronize that company, you would avoid seeds or plants of any of their varieties listed on their website.
Scientists have recently recommended that seed gene banks begin to preserve the wild ancestors of many of our indigenous crops, such as corn, wheat, rice, blueberries, pumpkins, lettuce, cranberries, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions. These wild plants may be growing in abandoned areas or even right along roadsides but are largely overlooked by seed saving organizations .
By preserving the seed, we protect the possibility of using these plants to breed new varieties that may be more resistant to pests and disease, or more adaptable to future climate change. Recognizing, cataloging, and protecting these plants where they already occur on federal and state lands has also been suggested.
Some are already almost gone, restricted to small areas where their specific habitat remains. One example cited is the paradoxical sunflower which exists only in small desert areas of Texas and New Mexico where salty water collects. That sunflower was used to breed new salt-tolerant varieties of sunflower.
You can read the study from the National Academy of Sciences here.
It’s also interesting to note that despite difficulties inherent in germinating old seeds, it is possible for scientists to defy the odds. Six Judean date palms, including first sprouted "Methuselah", are now growing in southern Israel—all grown since 2005 from 2,000 year-old seeds.
The reason for the extended and miraculous viability of the seed has not been definitively determined, but the adaptation to desert climate and the atmosphere of the Dead Sea is thought to have protected them. Once the female plants reach maturity they will be able to create “ancient” dates.
Preserving plant biodiversity is an important hedge against climate change, and even more important for our agricultural crops. Ensuring we have a healthy, abundant, and reliable food supply is essential to our future. And it wouldn't hurt if it tasted good, too.