An heirloom is generally considered to be a variety that has been passed down, through several generations of a family because of it’s valued characteristics. In the past 40 years, we’ve lost many of our heirloom varieties, along with the many smaller family farms that supported heirlooms. The multitude of heirlooms that had adapted to survive well for hundreds of years were lost or replaced by fewer hybrid tomatoes, bred for their commercially attractive characteristics.
In the process we have also lost much of the ownership of foods typically grown by family gardeners and small farms, and we are loosing the genetic diversity at an accelerating and alarming rate.
Every heirloom variety is genetically unique and inherent in this uniqueness is an evolved resistance to pests and diseases and an adaptation to specific growing conditions and climates. With the reduction in genetic diversity, food production is drastically at risk from plant epidemics and infestation by pests. Call this genetic erosion.
The late Jack Harlan, world-renowned plant collector who wrote the classic Crops and Man while Professor of Plant Genetics at University of Illinois at Urbana, wrote, “These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. In a very real sense, the future of the human race rides on these materials. The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner, and the public is unaware and unconcerned. Must we wait for disaster to be real before we are heard? Will people listen only after it is too late.”
It is up to us as gardeners and responsible stewards of the earth to assure that we sustain the diversity afforded us through heirloom varieties.