Beyond Heirloom Seeds and Into the Kitchen

The human diet has evolved over millennia - from our early days as hunter-gathers to our first steps into the agricultural era to today where the industrial revolution has drastically changed what we eat and how it is grown.


While for most of history this change was slow, in response to environmental changes or our migration to new climates, the last 100 years has seen changes in our food systems on such a scale as our ancestors could never have imagined.

Since the early 1900s, it has been estimated that farmers have lost around 75 percent of the crop diversity they use to have. In addition, wild food foraging has become an almost forgotten skill, dropping the number of wild plant varieties we eat as well.


Combined, the true loss of food diversity in the human diet has been estimated at closer to 90 percent and today a full 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species.


Thankfully, we have begun to realize the danger of relying on mass monocultures and limited seed varieties.


From the Russian Vavilov Research Institute to the "Doomsday" Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, millions of dollars are now being funneled into seed preservation and research.


On a more local level, heirloom seed enthusiasts are preserving their own regions' natural diversity through small seed banks, community seed exchanges, and even the growing diversity seen in local farmers' markets.


Heirloom seeds should be saved to protect food diversity


There is another side to food preservation though, beyond the farmers' fields and into the kitchens of those people who feed the world.


When we discuss a 75-90 percent loss in food diversity, we aren't just talking about seeds.


The loss in diversity has also come in the form of lost recipes and forgotten food traditions.


Each of those plant varieties lost from farmers' fields had a strong cultural connection that disappeared as well. 


Think of a simple red tomato. To a farmer, it is just a tomato but to a cook, it is the key to a recipe, a recipe that has its own cultural meaning and history. Give a tomato to a Mexican chef or to an Italian chef and you will get drastically different results.


We can work to preserve the ingredients, the seeds, the tomatoes, but without the cultural knowledge, the recipes, and the culinary traditions to match... we will never be able to understand or preserve the whole picture.

Seed preservation is extremely important but we can not forget that both the farmer and the cook need to have a voice in what and how seeds are preserved.


When the farmer or biologist is given the task of collecting the "most valuable and important seed varieties" you will find seeds are often saved based on how well they grow in different climates, how much they can produce per acre of growing space, and how unique they are.


Ask a chef or the family cook to complete the same task and you will find seeds saved based on flavor, based on how nutritious they are for the loved ones being fed, and based on the cultural and emotional connects they invoke. 


Traditional farmers preserve food diversity through heirloom seeds


Ask a chef in Mexico if it is necessary to preserve the 600th variety of heirloom corn and you will get a strong - Yes! - but ask an Italian chef if a unique truffle variety is more important and you will no doubt be told it is an insult to cooking not to save the truffle.


Seed preservation must take into consideration the voices of the people who use the products, as well as the farmers who grow them.


They are two sides of the same coin, two voices of the same soul.

While today millions of dollars are spent to preserve seeds in deep storage, frozen in the far north or in underground bunkers, the truth is that this is not preservation but simply storage.


To truly preserve the diversity of the human diet, we must encourage the diversity of seed varieties being actively grown and consumed. It matters not how many unique varieties of potatoes you preserve if cooks aren't using them.


By preserving seed variety in the here and now, not just in deep storage, we are also preserving the cultural food knowledge and recipes attached to them.


There is a movement in the heirloom seed sphere to encourage plant varieties by working with chefs to develop new and interesting ways to use them. It is thought that when a chef "promotes" a new product, a new market will be created for it, and farmers will have an incentive to grow a wider variety of foods.


The truth though is that every heirloom seed variety out there has its own unique cultural history and at one point there were no doubt many recipes that called for the heirloom variety. In many places of the world, these recipes have been all but lost though.


Preserving heirloom seeds through the promoting of heirloom recipes


While modern chefs can contribute to the rebirth of heirloom seed and forgotten crop varieties, we must also acknowledge that the work has already been done for us in many cases.


While crop diversity has drastically changed in the last 100 years, there are many people still alive today that remember the old recipes or have old family recipes hidden among their modern cookbooks. We must seek out and ask for this knowledge before it is truly lost forever.


In places where crop diversity hasn't yet been so drastically reduced, we must also aim to preserve the unique culinary traditions and recipes of the people.


In Brazil, famous chefs like Alex Atala have begun to use wild yucca and other native Amazonian plants to draw in crowds at their award winning restaurants.


While the publicity is good for the survival of the plant varieties, it is ultimately not about how many chefs can come up with creative and inventive uses for heirloom plant varieties but how many people in these local communities still buy and cook with the ingredients.


They are the true consumers that will keep the variety alive in their local communities, beyond the quickly changing trends and tastes of the restaurant world.

The fact that millions of dollars are being devoted each year to seed banks and preserving plant varieties is an incredible thing. These seed banks could well be the key to preserving the human species through climate change or the breakdown of our monoculture food systems.


However, if we can devote millions of dollars to seeds and plants -


Should we not be putting at least some effort into preserving the thoughts, recipes, and knowledge of the people who have developed, used, and perfected these seed varieties over generations?


Let us move beyond the fields and into the kitchens, while there is still something worth preserving.