Mercury Food and Wine articles No.7

My March 2011 article.

Crop diversity

In my last article I touched on the relationship between taste and the grower’s methodology. The other significant factor enhancing the enjoyment of food of variety and breed.

In modern industrial agriculture there is a tendency to uniformity in crop varieties. Crops are selected for high yield, disease resistance, shelf live and durability in handling. Varieties are also selected for uniformity in size, appearance and maturity. All these traits will enhance the commercial appeal of the crop. For instance French Beans have been bred to mature at the same time so machine harvesting will be more efficient. The bushes will only need to be harvested once. As always the downside of this drive to commercial efficiency in crops, is that taste and nutritional quality fall far down the list of priorities.

Prior to the industrialisation of agriculture, farmers and gardeners developed their own varieties that suited their own particular locations and conditions. Taste was a far higher priority when quality was more important than quantity.
In Italy for example, varieties were bred that suited the conditions of a particular region and the tastes of its inhabitants. These varieties were often named after the nearest city where they were grown and bred.
Seeds of favoured varieties were passed down through families and communities. These varieties are known as heirloom varieties.
I was fortunate to obtain some baby marrow seeds of an Italian Heirloom variety called Zucchini Genovese. This was an eye opener. The baby marrows from our supermarkets are not a patch on them. The taste and texture was stunning.

Fortunately heirloom seeds are open pollinated. This means that they remain true to type every generation. These seeds can be saved for the next planting.
In contrast are the F1 hybrids that are favoured by the seed companies. These are crosses between two distinct varieties. The animal version will be the mule, a cross between a horse and a donkey. These hybrids can show increased vigour and yield large beautiful fruits. However the next generation will not be true to type and can be very disappointing. This is an advantage to seed companies as it means growers cannot save their own seeds.

Most of the larger seed companies are geared to the industrial model and will favour varieties that will be most profitable, usually those that show traits desirable to industrial agriculture. This means the older heirloom varieties with all their wonderful diversity are ignored. Another factor working against crop diversity are the regulations imposed in most countries on the breeding of varieties and importation of seed.
Europe has lost significant diversity because of an EU regulation that requires a variety to be officially listed and levies a significant fee to do so. This is not financially viable and so varieties have been dropped. South Africa has had stringent phytosanitary regulations on the importation of seed. This has made it expensive to import the smaller quantities of heirloom seeds.

However on a positive note, progress has been made in officially importing heirloom seeds especially from Italy although the price is high. There has also been progress in preserving our indigenous African heirloom crops such as the traditional maize varieties before they become swamped in a sea of genetically modified maize. Some growers especially organic farmers and gardeners are actively seeking to grow the heirloom varieties as they suit the method and ideals of the Organic movement.

The most significant motivator for the revival of traditional heirloom varieties will be the end consumer , the shoppers and diners. It would be encouraging to see diners at the table demanding to be served a real zucchini and not a bland industrial facsimile.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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