Heirlooms

July 24, 2011

The first heirlooms are in. Faithful readers of the Thornapple Blog know that I’m referring to tomatoes. I’ve already made two meals of tomatoes and cottage cheese, and I’ll be heading out to Kroger’s this afternoon in pursuit of that special (read: cheap) variety that’s completely unavailable at our usual shopping spots for dairy products (e.g. Goodrich’s and ELFCO). If this seems hopelessly obscure, click here and get caught up on the back story that’s essential for understanding just how central heirloom tomatoes are to the Thornapple Blog.

Another tack on this comes from John Zilmer, who made the following comment a couple of weeks back in reference to a recent issue of National Geographic:

The article’s focus is on the supposed ability of heirloom varieties and breeds to resist various pressures (heat, drought, pests, etc) that are increasing with climate change. Ergo, we ought to save heirloom foods so that we will be able to continue to feed (the ever increasing numbers of) future people.

The feature article John is referring to leads off with a picture of Cary Fowler at the Svaldbard Seed Bank in the icy north of Norway. There are seedbanks all over the world. The point, as John’s comment suggests, is to preserve the genetic diversity in plants—both wild and domesticated—that are not widely grown by contemporary farmers. Svalbard is the mother of all seedbanks, intended to provide a backup for regional and national banks that are vulnerable to flood and fire, not to mention armed conflict. Cary and I were both speakers at the Gustavus Adolphus Nobel Conference in October of 2010. The college goes all out for this event and puts up a fantastic website where you can hear his talk and see the cool pictures of Svalbard.

The lead ethics question is “Why?” One answer is that the seeds are intrinsically valuable, though most environmental philosophers would hold that natural plant varieties (e.g. those that are the product of evolution) are much, much more valuable than those developed by farmers or plant breeders. The more common answer, and the one behind the National Geographic article, is that there is no telling which genes will turn out to have useful characteristics. Some will confer resistance to diseases that are not now but one day might be a problem, while others may allow plants to thrive under heat stress, drought, dampness or a change in light conditions. All of these things are potentially associated with climate change. So even though there is very little profit-based incentive for maintaining these seedbanks, conservationists and plant scientists think that it is very important to do so.

The next ethics question is “Who is served by these seedbanks?” It cropped up at the Nobel Conference. Some assert that Svalbard is “stealing” from the farmers who developed these varieties, and that biotechnology companies are the ultimate beneficiaries. Fowler described the policies in place that keep “ownership” of the seeds with the national or regional seedbanks that send them to Norway. But even if that answers the challenge to Svalbard, the question is still valid as applied to the national and regional seedbanks themselves. There is really very little sense that we would just pull these seeds out of cold storage and start growing them again in their current state. The genetic diversity that seedbanks preserve is thought of as a resource for plant breeders who would use it to develop new varieties that are better suited to environmental conditions we at present only imagine in the vaguest of terms.

Which brings us to Diane Ott Whealy, the founder of Seed Savers Exchange, an NGO that maintains a seedbank in Decorah, Iowa. Although National Geographic leads with a photo of Fowler, the article begins by discussing Whealy. The point of Seed Savers is to preserve and promote heirlooms so that people can grow them out again, just like the tomatoes waiting alluringly downstairs on my kitchen counter. I’m all for this, as my enthusiasm for these tomatoes should have already made abundantly clear. I’ve gone on and on about them several times. We thus see a third answer to the “why” question posed above: some of these old varieties are pretty and taste great, even if they don’t have the cosmetic or processing characteristics desired by the corporate actors who control the industrial food chain.

Yet because these varieties were themselves developed by plant breeders and farmers decades ago, there is no reason to think that they will be better adapted to the kind of environmental change envisioned as a result of greenhouse gas emissions than our current commercial varieties. Some genes in these varieties might prove useful, but the genes would still have to be moved into a better adapted plant. If plant breeders respond to the profit motives dictated by supply chain food ethics, preserving good tasting varieties will happen only if consumers purchasing at major food outlets demand it.

Now we move into a terrain where politics and metaphysics get intertwined. I know for a fact that some true believers in the alternative food movement think that these heirloom varieties will do fine in an era of climate change, as if by magic or divine intervention. I agree that they might do fine, but I think it will be dumb luck if they do.

Although I recommend the National Geographic articles heartily, I do think that they jumble up the genetic diversity rationales. Making things complicated: That’s what us professors of food ethics are here for.

I’ll leave it to John to provide the Sinatra lyric that ties all this together.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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One thought on “Heirlooms

  1. I can’t offer a song that ties all this together; not only is Paul apparently the professor of lyrics around here, but I myself am more into analysis than synthesis. So, I’ll offer up (selected verses of) a somewhat peculiar Sinatra tune, one in line with what I think is one of the more pressing concerns at hand: namely, cui bono?

    “Way down among Brazilians,
    Coffee beans grow by the millions
    So they’ve got to find those extra cups to fill.
    They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil!

    No tea, or tomato juice
    You’ll see no potato juice.
    The planters down in Santos all say, ‘no, no, no!’

    And when their ham and eggs need savor,
    Coffee catsup gives ’em flavor
    Coffee pickles way outsell the dill.
    Why they put coffee in the coffee in Brazil.”

    I doubt these are heirloom varieties of coffee Sinatra croons about. It seems there’s an organized, powerful group controlling the coffee scene, forcing a homogeneity of flavor on the helpless Brazilians (there’s even a verse about a politician’s daughter who gets fined for turning down a cup of joe). And if ‘Why they put coffee in the coffee in Brazil’ isn’t some Orwellian prophecy about corn products, then I don’t know what it is.

    But I’m not as worried about the homogeneity of flavor as I am about the organized, powerful group; at least in my more enlightened moments, I’d rather eat only Brandywine tomatoes forever than be a smiling consumer of industrialized diversity, however tasty it may be. That’s what bothered me most in the NG article: the idea that heirloom varieties are importantly valuable as a future sustainer of industrial agriculture.

    Thanks for taking the request, Paul. You should put out an open guitar case for tips!

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