Why We Preserve Heirloom Cultivars

‘Are these apples?’ she says, opening a box of heirloom tomatoes.

I stand flabbergasted in the entryway to the kitchen, trying not to feel like a judgmental food snob and failing miserably. Later, I will hiss to someone in a corridor that the caterers didn’t know what an heirloom tomato was, and she will gasp and sigh and roll her eyes, and we will titter over the very idea of not recognising a tomato when it’s right in front of you. This story reflects poorly on me, as well it should, but it also highlights a larger social issue, that of the disappearance of heirloom cultivars of all sorts, not just tomatoes, and why it matters.

The fact that the caterers didn’t recognise heirloom tomatoes when they saw them is evidence of inexperience in the industry, but more than that, it shows how industrial agriculture has limited our choices and created a world in which people are only familiar with a very narrow range of fruits and vegetables. Carrots are orange, beets are dark red/purple, lettuce comes in a handful of varieties, tomatoes are red, and these are all things that people understand and know.

The caterers also struggled with daikon radish (‘that looks like a carrot!’), another unfamiliar vegetable. (‘Radishes are those little red things, right?’) That they weren’t terribly knowledgeable about the food they were supposed to be serving wasn’t entirely their fault, and the fact that I and others thought it was funny to privately mock them for it was evidence of why there’s such a huge cultural gap when it comes to food. After all, if people make fun of you for not knowing much about food or for being unfamiliar with more unusual types of food, that doesn’t really encourage you to go out and learn more about food.

So, why do we preserve heirloom cultivars? Is it just a snob thing, so that we can sneer at people who eat the pedestrian, mundane, totally dull versions of beloved foods? Or is there something deeper and more complex going on here? Food snobbery is, after all, a time-honoured tradition and it seems to be particularly trendy now thanks to the explosion of backyard gardens, elite farmers’ markets, and yet more ways to show how progressive and food-savvy and together you are.

There are actually a lot of reasons to preserve heirloom cultivars that have nothing to do with food snobbery. One is that they’re inherently cool. Okay, maybe that’s a little snobby. But heritage cultivars often look unusual, taste slightly different than their industrial counterparts, and behave differently in recipes. They’re interesting. They provide ways to branch out with how you eat and the way you eat it, and that’s something that carries a lot of benefits for eaters; because diverse culinary options are a good thing.

Sadly, most heritage cultivars are prohibitively expensive. In a world where some people barely have access to fresh produce, let alone produce they can afford, the probability of being able to buy heirlooms is even lower, because they tend to be more expensive. They are often grown organically because that’s the market farmers are trying to capture, and the organic label drives prices up. Furthermore, some don’t ship and handle as well, requiring special treatment and resulting in a shorter shelf life. That, too, adds to the sale price, requiring stores to mark them up more than usual in order to get their money out of them. For those reasons, heritage cultivars may remain something people walk past in the grocery store not just because they don’t recognise them, but because they can’t afford them.

Which is a pity, because cultivating such crops also contributes to genetic diversity. What happens when industrial crops sicken and die, start to become prone to diseases, and develop other problems? Ideally, you backbreed to heritage cultivars with robust genetics that have been thriving for decades and sometimes centuries. If you don’t have that stock available to backbreed to, you’re facing a situation where a common industrial crop could become unsustainable; can you imagine a world where, for example, people couldn’t grow corn commercially? Corn is a particularly good example because it’s such a fussy and refined crop that it requires painstaking care, and thus heirloom corn is critical for the survival of commercial corn.

There’s also the fact that heirloom cultivars provide important insights into our history. Some were developed by historically important individuals and cultures, and studying them offers important information about who we were and where we are going. Preserving them also becomes a way of projecting ourselves into the future, creating an imagined world in which people can evaluate their own history through our crops.

Want to know what people ate at medieval feasts, and what it tasted like? Many of the fruit and vegetable cultivars grown then actually aren’t anymore; careful selective breeding and changes in what farmers want have led to breeding out the traits that were valued then. Conversely, preservation of heritage cultivars from the 18th and 19th centuries has allowed us to see how people eat, and to create replicas of meals people might have eaten in the past, which is both immensely nerdy, and kind of exciting. How were people getting their nutrition? What were historic diets like, and who was eating what? Who was getting the most dietary benefit from the available food sources?

All these things and more are carried in the genes of heirloom cultivars, which is why it’s so important to preserve them. And why it’s so important for people to offer outreach and education to get members of the public familiar with them and excited about their potential. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing what a heirloom tomato is: there is something wrong with knowing, and not offering to show someone else.