Heirloom gardening is becoming a trend in the United States and globally, which is evidenced by the number of companies that are dedicated to selling seeds that will grow heirloom vegetables.
But why are these crops becoming so popular? One reason is that they could be the solution to food insecurity and a possible key to solving world hunger.
It’s not an understatement to say that heirloom seeds are critically important to the future of food. Here’s why.
1. What Are Heirloom Seeds?
At the most basic level, heirloom seeds are those that were developed before farmers and food-growers began developing hybrid seeds.
This occurred around 1950, but some purists believe that heirloom seeds began phasing out prior to World War II.
The timeline notwithstanding, the main trait of an heirloom plant is that it produces fruit that is, in most cases, identical to the parent plant.
This contrasts with hybrid plants, which are designed to produce a different fruit from the parent plant.
Over time, these hybrid plants were genetically bred to produce more fruit per plant and to be disease, pest, and weather resistant.
While these characteristics were and are excellent for farmers, they aren’t necessarily good for food insecurity.
This might seem contradictory because if you’re growing more fruit per plant, shouldn’t you have more food to feed others? In theory, yes, but in practice, the truth is more complex.
2. Why Hybrid Seeds Aren’t the Solution to Food Insecurity
Even though hybrid plants now produce several times the number of fruit per plant than heirloom plants, these plants are not going to do much to solve food insecurity.
This is because the plants have been bred to all have the same basic genetic foundation. Eventually, when you cross-breed species, everything ends up having a mix of genes and their traits become similar to each other.
This not only makes all the fruit or vegetables from hybrid seeds taste about the same, but it also means that more plants are vulnerable to a catastrophic event.
For instance, if a disease arises that affects a certain hybrid plant, it’s going to affect all hybrid plants that have that same genetic base.
Since there is very little diversity in plant growth today (approximately 66% of the world’s crops consist of just nine crops), such a disease could wipe out more than half the food production in a single growing season.
So, while hybrid plants are more disease resistant in general, if a disease develops that targets hybrid crops, the world is in big trouble.
3. Why Heirloom Seeds May Be One Solution to Food Insecurity
Aside from plant diversity, heirloom seeds have another quality that offers a solution to food insecurity.
They are openly pollinated, which means growers can collect the seeds from the current crop, dry them out, store them, and plant them the next year (or within the next five years).
This means the crops are renewable and whomever is growing them will always have seeds to grow their own food, even if a disease hits the hybrid crops that are mass produced.
If every household were able to grow their own heirloom crops, they could provide for their current food needs and future food needs.
Additionally, as heirloom plants are grown in a single environment year after year, they become more attuned to those growing circumstances, making future crops hardier and more productive.
The grower will select seeds from only the most flavorful and productive plants each year, so their offspring will naturally have the best genes from the best plants.
Eventually, this selection process creates plants that are genetically superior to those first heirloom plants, but still share a similar genetic base (unlike hybrids, which will eventually become extremely different genetically from the initial plants).
4. Diversity Means More Variety
Farmers and food-growers who choose only heirloom seeds from different species will eventually create several hardy crops that can thrive in a single environment.
This creates resilience because if a disease or pest infestation were to affect one crop, there would still be several more that can still produce food.
While the community may not have the one crop for a season, they will not go hungry because they can rely on other crops for that year.
5. Back to Our Roots
When hybrid crops were new, they seemed to be a forward-thinking idea that would allow farmers to produce many times the fruits and vegetables that they currently were able to produce.
But, by selecting hardiness traits over flavor traits, the results have been that the vegetables and fruits produced today are not as tasty as heirloom fruits and vegetables.
So, not only do we have a veritable lack of diversity in food production these days, we also have food that doesn’t resemble the flavor of its ancestors. It’s time to get back to our roots and grow fruit and vegetables the way they were meant to be grown.
Heirloom gardens aren’t going to solve world hunger overnight, or even without other interventions, but they do offer households a way to perpetually grow their own food, regardless of their growing environment.
There is a place for both hybrid and heirloom gardens, but the more people who learn to grow heirloom fruits and vegetables, the better off the world will be.