"Heirloom," "heritage," "antique," and "rare" are all names for animal breeds and plant varieties that have been around for a while and may now be in danger of extinction.
These terms seem to crop up more frequently as we become more aware of the genetic diversity that we've lost. When it comes to foodstuffs, those losses have been staggering. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75% of the genetic diversity in agriculture has been lost in the past century. When the Rural Advancement Foundation International compared the seed stock available in 1903 to the inventory of the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory in 1983, they found that 91% of field corn, 93% of lettuce, 95% of tomato, 96% of sweet corn, and 98% of asparagus varieties, had become extinct. Just 30 varieties of plants now supply 95% of the calories we consume.
Why should we care about diversity in our food supply? Because diversity means food security. Just remember that the Great Famine that killed millions of people in Ireland in the middle of the last century occurred because they were growing just a few potato varieties, all of which were susceptible to the same blight. When a new pest or pathogen emerges, we turn to the wealth of varieties that we have inherited from the past or found in the wild to find the resistance that we need. Keeping these varieties alive is like safeguarding a treasure trove from the past.
In addition to increasing our food security, preserving diversity in our foodstuffs also keeps flavor in our food. Many antique varieties-such as the Brandywine tomato-were bred and then passed on because of their superb eating qualities. They may not have the highest yields or be cosmetically perfect, they may not take kindly to mechanical harvesting or long storage on the way to market, but they taste delicious.
So please explore the many older varieties of plants and animals available from local farmers in Illinois. Help preserve these "heirlooms" from the past and treat yourself to some amazing flavors!
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