Heritage (Heirloom) Seeds
In some parts of the world, it is illegal to sell seeds of cultivars that are not listed as approved for sale. The Henry Doubleday Research Association, now known as Garden Organic, responded to this legislation by setting up the Heritage Seed Library to preserve seeds of as many of the older cultivars as possible. However, seed banks alone have not been able to provide sufficient insurance against catastrophic loss. In some jurisdictions, like Colombia, laws have been proposed that would make seed saving itself illegal. Many heirloom vegetables have kept their traits through open pollination, while fruit varieties such as apples have been propagated over the centuries through grafts and cuttings. The trend of growing heirloom plants in gardens has been returning in popularity in North America and Europe.
Before the industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of plant foods were grown for human consumption, largely due to farmers and gardeners saving seeds and cuttings for future planting. From the 16th century through the early 20th centuries, the diversity was huge. Old nursery catalogues were filled with plums, peaches, pears and apples of numerous varieties and seed catalogs offered legions of vegetable varieties. Valuable and carefully selected seeds were sold and traded using these catalogs along with useful advice on cultivation. Since World War II, agriculture in the industrialized world has mostly consisted of food crops which are grown in large, monocultural plots. In order to maximize consistency, few varieties of each type of crop are grown. These varieties are often selected for their productivity and their ability to ripen at the same time while withstanding mechanical picking and cross-country shipping, as well as their tolerance to drought, frost, or pesticides. This form of agriculture has led to a 75% drop in crop genetic diversity.
While heirloom gardening has maintained a niche community, in recent years it has seen a resurgence in response to the industrial agriculture trend. In the Global South, heirloom plants are still widely grown, for example, in the home gardens of South and Southeast Asia. Before World War II, the majority of produce grown in the United States was heirlooms.
In the 21st century, numerous community groups all over the world are working to preserve historic varieties to make a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers available again to the home gardener, by renovating old orchards, sourcing historic fruit varieties, engaging in seed swaps, and encouraging community participation.
Curating Genetic Diversity
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