We consume a lot of eggs at my house and sometimes we run out. Often this dilemma is solved with Evan taking an impromptu trip to the store. Usually when this occurs, he comes home with some unusual treat…this trip was no exception.
When Evan set the Pete & Gerry’s egg carton on the counter it looked no different than any of the other eggs he’s brought home. I opened it up expecting to see the same brown eggs we always get. But much to my surprise, the eggs I found inside weren’t brown or even white for that matter. The eggs sitting in the carton in front of me were BLUE!
Luckily, I have seen multi colored shells before. Friends of ours who raise different breeds of free range chickens occasionally share any extra eggs they have with us. A dozen included eggs of different colors, each distinct to the breed of chicken who laid it. Some shells were pink, others were green, and some were the same color blue as the eggs that now sat in front of me from the grocery store. Closing the carton to read it, I noticed that these were heirloom eggs laid by the Ameraucana Hen.
Heirloom is not a word usually associated with food. That is until recently. Now it is common to find things like heirloom tomatoes or purple potatoes in the grocery store. But, what is a heirloom or heritage food?
Heirloom & Heritage Foods
Both heirloom and heritage mean the same thing in that they are both used to describe varieties of animals and crops that have unique genetic traits, were grown or raised many years ago, and are typically produced in a sustainable manner. The word “heritage” is usually used to describe animals, while the word “heirloom” refers generally to plants.
For thousands of years farmers throughout the world have raised many different animal breeds and plant varieties. These plants and animals were bred over time to develop traits that made them particularly well-adapted to local environmental conditions. Today, industrial farms rely upon only a few specialized types of livestock and crops that are bred to express certain desired traits like:
- Plants – sweetness, overall size, crop yield, color/taste/texture/size consistency
- Animals – milk or egg production, gain weight quickly, or yield particular types of meat within confined facilities (like large breasted chickens)
As a result of this selective breeding fewer and fewer varieties of plants and animals comprise our industrial food chain. For example:
- 83 percent of dairy cows are Holsteins, and five main breeds comprise almost all of the dairy herds in the US.
- 60 percent of beef cattle are of the Angus, Hereford or Simmental breeds.
- 75 percent of pigs in the US come from only 3 main breeds.
- Over 60 percent of sheep come from only four breeds, and 40 percent are Suffolk-breed sheep.
- 99% of all turkeys raised in the U.S. are Broad-Breasted Whites, a single turkey breed specially developed to have a meaty breast.
- Almost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties available in 1903 are now extinct.
While it may seem beneficial to have so much consistency throughout the food chain, these monocultures present more problems than they solve. The best example of this is the Irish Potato Famine. During the early 1800’s, the Irish relied on a single variety of potato, prized for its very high yield, to feed the population. Season after season, new potato plants were grown from the eyes of the previous season’s potatoes. This form of vegetative propagation is a natural form on cloning – all the plants are genetically identical to one another, having the same strengths and genetic susceptibility to disease. When the blight hit all of the plants were susceptible and all of the potatoes were destroyed as a result.
Read more about genetic diversity and the Irish Potato Famine here.
The invention of industrialized farming has caused thousands of non-commercial animal breeds and crop varieties to disappear. It isn’t just the destruction of the rainforest that is causing species to go extinct. The industrial food chain is also to blame. Within the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct. In the past five years alone, 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have become extinct.
See the full American Livestock Breed Conservancy list here.
Preserving Genetic Diversity
Sustainable farmers who grow heirloom fruits and vegetables or who raise heritage breeds of livestock help to preserve genetic diversity by ensuring that these varieties are not completely replaced by the few commercial varieties that are mass-produced by industrial agriculture. Heirloom and heritage breeds serve as an important genetic resource. If they become extinct, the valuable traits that help them withstand environmental hardship like extreme temperatures, drought, pests, and disease are lost forever.
What Can You Do?
So, can we do to preserve our food supply and not fall victim to the pitfalls agricultural monoculture like the Irish Potato Famine? The answer is surprisingly simple. Eat them. Cooking with heirloom crop varieties to add exciting new elements to your meals; heirloom fruits and vegetables have unique colors, textures, and tastes that can’t be found in factory-farmed industrial produce.
There are a growing number of sustainable farms throughout the US and Canada that specialize in producing heirloom and heritage foods, and their produce can often be found at farmers markets around the country. You can also visit the Eat Well Guide to find a farm, market or restaurant near you that sells meat, eggs and dairy products from heritage animals.
Each time you choose to consume heirloom plants and heritage animals with your purchase at the grocery store or your food choice at a restaurant, you are voting for agricultural variety, sustainability, genetic diversity, and local agriculture with your fork.
Learn more about how plants have put us to work and used our desire for beauty, sweetness, power, and change in consciousness to dominate our world.
Read the book – Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
Watch the full length PBS program – Botany of Desire