Heritage Foods: The Importance of Biodiversity
(Page 3 of 9)
The plant introduction station occupies a nondescript warehouse somewhere on the campus of Washington State University. It’s surrounded by student parking lots, one of which I sleep in that night, in the open bed of my truck. Recalling my visit today, I have a vague memory of the handmade display rack one of the scientists used to show local schoolkids the endless variety of shapes, colors, and sizes of beans in the collection, and of his helpfulness as he answered questions and fetched requested varieties for me—vivid green chickpeas from India, fuzzy little brown chickpeas from Iran, an old unnamed bean from Tennessee, eye-catching red and white Bolivian beans, and a dozen other must-have varieties. Greedy for beans, lentils, and chickpeas, I was smitten by odd and forgotten legumes.
For several years these plants grew in my gardens. I maintained them even after returning to the East Coast to live in Boston’s North End and work for a museum as a writer and fund-raiser. They survived two seasons at my parents’ home north of the city while I gardened on weekends, hauling paper bags filled with compost and produce back and forth by train. They stayed with me after I married and moved to the nearby city of Salem, though by then the collection had diminished. Gradually, one by one, varieties began to disappear: Some failed to adapt to New England; others couldn’t germinate after long stretches stored in a cabinet. It’s hard to say exactly when the last of them went—probably after my divorce and move to Maine, where I stopped gardening altogether for a few years.
Life’s like that. Mine was for a time, anyway. In our haste and mobility we lose threads that tie us to the past, watch a season or two slip by without a much needed new coat of paint on the house, neglect those things that demand constant attention and care. This is one reason we have genebanks—to back up our inattention and shifting priorities. Today I could grow these beans again by digging up their accession numbers and ordering replacements from the government. But my collecting interests have evolved; my goals have changed. If I were to grow chickpeas now it would be mostly out of nostalgia, because staying motivated to grow dry pulses (edible seed crops) for the table isn’t easy. Why should we go to all the trouble to preserve some obscure Iranian chickpea already in someone else’s collection? It’s a lot of work! How many of us are willing to grow and thresh beans for soup, as long as we can buy pinto beans for pennies at the supermarket?
Over the years, even as my concern about maintaining genetic diversity and preserving disappearing agricultural traditions has increased, I’ve struggled with some fundamental questions. What should agricultural diversity look like, and how is it relevant to the modern world of supermarkets, giant tractors, and irrigated mega-farms? What role can the individual play, and what place should niche crops and heritage foods (also known as heirlooms—typically described as foods dating back at least fifty years and untouched by modern breeding) have in our markets and on our plates? How do we summon the energy and will to keep this bounty alive? Many years have slipped by since my visit to Pullman, and I’m looking for some answers.
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