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What took 10,000 years to Build and only 50 years to Destroy?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been doing lots of prep work on my garden over the last month.  Getting the seedlings ready, spreading and mixing the compost, etc.  The weather has been great and it’s a great way to actively balance the time I spend working online.

While outside working, I’ve been thinking about what food security actually means.

Here’s a line of thinking I found that was useful.  You might find it useful too.

  1. Food security starts with successfully growing something you can actually eat.  It progresses as you get more skilled at growing a variety of foods throughout the season.
  2. If you can get to the point of either personally growing or locally sourcing nearly everything your family eats, you are well on your way to food security.
  3. However, real food security that can handle a wider variety of threats and opportunities goes beyond simply growing lots of food locally.  It requires growing or raising heirloom and heritage foods locally that few others in the world do.

Why does it require heirloom vegetables or heritage livestock?   Let’s dive into this a bit.

Our Inheritance

Essentially, “heirloom” or “heritage” is a way to describe the vast number of vegetables and livestock developed across history that haven’t been selected commercial production globally in the modern environment.

Collectively, this variety took human beings 10,000 years of diligent work to create.  In short, it’s our food inheritance.  A catalogue of resilience.  A collection of nearly all of the plants and animals required to be productive in nearly every circumstance we might find ourselves in the future.

Unfortunately, it’s disappearing.  It’s taken only fifty years of government subsidies and industrial mismanagement to squander it.  To globally replace this cornucopia of food variety with a small number of commercial crops.

How badly did we squander it?   Read this from an excellent article in National Geographic by Charles Siebert (well worth reading in full if you have the time):

In the United States an estimated 90 percent of our historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished. Of the 7,000 apple varieties that were grown in the 1800s, fewer than a hundred remain. In the Philippines thousands of varieties of rice once thrived; now only up to a hundred are grown there.

Johnny Appleseeed must be spinning in his grave.

Here’s the graphic from the article that depicts it.   For example, in 1903 there were 497 different types of lettuce available in the US, and now there are only 36.

 

 

Growing Differently

Let’s cut to the chase on this.  Here’s how growing heritage or heirloom foods will improve your food security:

  • They provide you protection against plagues that are poised to decimate commercial mono-cultures.
  • These plants and livestock may have characteristics that are much better for your local conditions than commercial species (particularly if that climate or those conditions are changing rapidly).  For example: Drought resistance.  Able to process specific flora or waste products.
  • These rare products provide you a better chance at making an income through differentiation in the marketplace.  The ability to sell produce at a premium rather than as a commodity.

So, get started.  Start small.  Take a look at the online store at the “Seed Savers Exchange” and find something that suits you.

 

Your guide to resilient thinking,

 

JOHN ROBB

 

PS:  The best way to demonstrate that you like this letter, is to ask your friends and family to subscribe.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • It’s very frustrating that we have lost a lot of variety in our seeds. Not just for the variety of tastes but also the resilience that you are talking about. This is just another reason and motivator for my family and I to take personal and community gardening more seriously.

    The seed savers exchange looks like a great tool and resource. Thanks for finding that and sharing. Excited to try it out and grow some new seeds!

  • Alas my backyard is mostly septic field.

    • c.

      camas grows well as a greywater purifier and is edible to boot. ;)

  • c.

    Better yet, learn to save and then breed your own varieties. Carol Deppe’s “breed your own vegetable varieties” is THE modern primer.

    Unless you have a significant chunk of land you’ll soon grit your teeth on biennials.

  • Carol Deppe’s “The Resilient Gardener” is also a fantastic book outlining how different garden-variety staple crops can be grown that perform well under various conditions and during different times of the year. She’s really wrapped her mind around this stuff better than anyone else I know, and she’s got a PhD in biology from Harvard to boot. If you want to listen to some wonderful interviews with her on your ipod while tooling around the garden, Jim Phillips really gives her a chance to talk and immerse you in her way of thinking. I’ve summarized and linked to the podcasts here: http://digthisdigthat.blogspot.com/search/label/Carol%20Deppe, although it seems the interviews have continued on since last I checked.

    • johnrobb

      Thanks Matt. JR

  • Bill

    As someone who has been doing just this for the last 30 years I agree with the premise but not the details. There are lots of people out there saving and propagating these varieties, you just have to look a little harder. For example, I know one local seed company that lists 65 different lettuces in their catalog, an apple grower with an estimated 349 varieties in his orchard, etc.

    There are lots of small seed companies specializing in heirloom and open pollinated seds these days in response to this problem. My favorite, Adaptive Seeds (adaptiveseeds.com) is a small company owned by a husband and wife who have traveled the world bringing back unique varieties of heirloom seeds from all over. They have lots of varieties you won’t find in any other catalog. Just within 30 miles of me I know of half a dozen small seed companies doing this sort of work. Support these types of companies and help maintain biodiversity.

  • Very important information to get out there. In addition, these big agra companies will sue you if you attempt to save seeds to plant the next year. They want to force us to continually purchase seeds

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