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FoodShed: Dragon Tongue Beans and Rattlesnake Watermelons

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If genetically modified crops are the newest things, what’s the oldest? Heirloom crops may not be the oldest of all time, but they’re the oldest we have, and we’re losing them rapidly. Here’s a quick overview …

The Woes
Think you have a lot of produce choices in today’s supermarket? Then this statistic will shock you. Since 1900, about 96 percent of crop varieties have become extinct. These were varieties that were passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, and had been adapted to thrive in particular climates and regions of our country, and the world. An increasing reliance on industrial farming reduced crop varieties so that only those crops that were uniform in size and appearance, that could be harvested at one time, and that could be transported long distances survived. Many of these current seeds are hybrids, which means their seeds do not produce true to form so that farmers must rely on seeds from the seed companies each year.

So what’s the big deal?

The Wows
Governments, non-profit organizations, organic farms and home gardeners around the world have joined together to preserve heirloom seeds. These seeds must be grown out and re-saved every few years, so it is an arduous task. By buying heirloom crops whenever and wherever available—including as part of menu offerings by top chefs at popular restaurants—you help increase the growing marketplace for these flavor-intense, nutritionally dense varieties.

What You Can Do Now

1. Seek out heirloom crops at restaurants, farmers markets and even supermarkets (they’re starting to carry heirloom tomatoes).

2. Find a local nursery that sells heirloom plants and seeds when making choices for your garden—or order from or Not only is this is a good thing to do, but it’s incredibly fun to grow things you can’t find in the supermarket, like lemon cucumbers, dragon tongue beans, rattlesnake watermelons and, of course, the astounding and astonishingly beautiful varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

3. Grab a book about heirloom crops at the library or do some online research. Each crop has a story that will help you feel connected to a wide range of cultures as people moved around the globe and carried their seeds with them. Kids, in particular, love these stories.

Loss of crop varieties reduces our cultural and flavor diversity; makes us vulnerable to crop devastation from a single insect, disease, or global weather change; and limits our future medicinal discoveries. What’s more, it makes the world’s farmers dependent on corporate monoliths for their basic needs.

If you already buy or grow heirloom crops, tell us about your favorites!


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