American food is on the brink of disaster

Slow Food.

No, that’s not dealing with an incompetent waitress in the local greasy spoon.  Slow Food is actually a non profit organization dedicated to promoting healthy foods and genetic diversity in our food crops.

Is it worthwhile?

Take a look at our history, talk to some elders who were (or are) great cooks or gardeners.  Ask about what they grew in their gardens before 1960, what the varieties were.  Ask about the kinds of fruits that were being grown in backyards in your area.  Talk to some old farmers about the breeds of livestock that used to exist on family farms.

Guess what?

A lot of them are gone.

Some are even extinct.

These days, biodiversity in terms of agricultural products is non-existent.  For example, I was at the local produce market today.  I was interested in root vegetables.  They had one kind of beets, one kind of turnips, and one kind of carrots.  Once upon a time, you would have had an entire rainbow of colors and sizes and shapes just from those 3 different vegetables, as well as an entire bunch of ones that most people have never heard of.

Like parsnips.

I remember parsnips, and they are still occasionally available in grocery stores.  One kind, of course.  Parsnips sauteed in butter, served with just a faint sprinkling of salt…and they were delicious.

Squash…I grew up with a colorful assortment of these tasty things.  Winter squash had hard shells and mature seeds…and stored well in the cellar for use during the winter.  There were a hundred or more different kinds, and each one tasted different.  They each LOOKED different too.  Families would trade them back and forth, since no one grew more than one or two kinds usually.  Summer squash were the queen of the summer supper table, served in everything from salads to pickles to even being used in desserts.  There were the pale green flying saucers, the scalloped snow white disks, round zucchini, long zucchini, yellow crooknecks, yellow straightnecks….

Apples came in hundreds of varieties.  Different sizes, shapes, colors, and textures.  Some were cooking apples, some were cider apples, and some were eating apples.  There were the small crab apples too.  Most stores feature less than a dozen different varieties, and some of the ones that fascinated me as a child are long forgotten…like the apple we used for jelly and apple butter with snow white flesh that was streaked INSIDE with bright red–it made gloriously dark pink jellies and incredibly deep crimson colored apple butter.  It tasted good too, as we all seemed to prefer “cooking” apples over “eating” apples for snacks.  Our perfect eating apple was tart, juicy, and very crisp without even a hint of mealiness.

The plums were as diverse.  There were green, red, black, purple, and yellow plums…plus the wild plums that were so incredibly sour that you’d almost cry when you’d eat one.  (We ate them by the handfuls too.)  From midsummer on, we’d have plums, nectarines, peaches, and apricots to munch on, as each variety ripened at a different time.

Even corn, we had white sweet corn, shoepeg sweet corn, yellow sweet corn, butter and cream sweet corn (bicolor), dent corn, flint corn, popcorn, and “Indian” corn (colored corn).  Each kind had a number of varieties, they varied according to their height, their stalks, their production habits, disease resistance, nutrient needs, and drought resistance.  They were all open pollinated, which means that if you planted seeds from mature ears you grew…you’d get the same kind of corn the next year, assuming you’d not allowed cross pollination to occur.

Small family truck farms existed all across the country too.  They’d sell their produce at roadside stands, to wholesalers, to grocery stores…to anyone who wanted to buy it.  Nobody ever got sick from eating it, whether it was fertilized with manure or not.  Everybody had the common sense to wash it before eating it, and to wash your cutting board after cutting up meat.  We didn’t need legislation to protect us from stupidity back then.  Sometimes, we’d find worms in the fruit and vegetables too.  You were smart enough to cut that part out.

All of these old varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, and even the breeds of livestock and poultry are referred to as “heirloom varieties” or “heirloom breeds.”  These varieties and breeds were used in the development, in many cases, of our modern high-production varieties and breeds, creating hybrids.  These hybrids are carefully bred for their characteristics, and the increased production has helped feed the world.

There is a cost however.  Many of the originating breeds and varieties are dying or have already died out.  With the birth of giant agricultural conglomerates, many of the small family farms have faded into history, unable to support a family in the modern economy.  Without any reason to continue being planted and produced, these breeds and varieties are now endangered or extinct, forever losing important parts of our agricultural gene pool to modernization.

Why are these old varieties and breeds important?

In the event of a new disease, fungus, bacteria, pest…whatever comes along, genetic diversity means that plant and animal breeders have a bigger pool to draw desirable genetic material from to create a new and improved variety that is resistant to the threat.  If that gene pool has vanished, there is nothing that can be done but hope for the best–not an ideal situation if you pay attention to areas struck by famines.

Therefore, preserving heirloom varieties and breeds is not nostalgia, but ensuring an adequate food supply for the future.  This concept needs supporting, not only by government grants and official efforts, by universities and colleges, but by the general public as they shop at gourmet shops, farmers markets, local roadside stands, and even at the farms themselves, without hindrance and perhaps even with official encouragement.  These food products typically have a much shorter route from farm to consumer, resulting in fewer chances for contamination or tampering, as well as lower prices for the consumers.

So call your congressman, your senator, your state legislature…and your local university.  Ask them to support the preservation of heirloom varieties and breeds.  Tell them you want to see biodiversity everywhere from the experimental farms to the local grocery store.

Don’t let the scaremongers put you in a situation where you feel the only way you can feel secure about your food supply is by restricting the market to only allow approved sellers to market their food.  What if that guy likes broccoli as much as our former President Bush did?  Does that mean that NOBODY eats broccoli?

We need safe food, but we need to retain our ability to choose where we purchase it, what kind we purchase, and how it was produced.  If you are afraid of what is in your food, perhaps you should re-examine your source…or their sources!  Disclosure about the ingredients’ origin is great, but determining by law who is allowed to supply those ingredients is not.  The government may be spouting slogans about how safe the American food supply is, but at the same time, we all know the government is not known for its frugal  nature–look at all of the prices they pay for various things for the military, Congress, the White House, etc.  Obviously, the government isn’t a reliable agent to determine what is “safe” and “reasonable” if you look at their own history.

Leave the choices up to the consumer.  Keep manufacturers responsible for their own production and force them to disclose not only their ingredients, but the country of origin.  Make them label packages so that any consumer can recognize which plant the item was produced in and when.  But ultimately, for the consumer’s own peace of mind, let the consumer make their own choices about what is acceptable risk and what is not.  Personally, I’d rather drink raw milk from a spotless local dairy than to consume hormone induced milk from a dairy that barely meets minimal standards and sends their milk off to a production facility that frequently has violations regarding sanitation and barely escapes being shut down…and then is shipped hundreds of miles to where I buy it in a corporate grocery store.  I’d rather get my oysters, crabs,  shrimp and fish right off of the boat on the Pascagoula River than to buy it in the grocery store with a completely unknown history and point of origin.  I can SMELL if that seafood hasn’t been handled properly on the boat, or if they haven’t got a history of handling it right.  I love picking blueberries right off of the bush, eating them by the handfuls without even washing them, from a small “u-pick” farmer who hasn’t gone through the tons of paperwork to get certified organic…yet follows good organic practices and lives just down the road from me.  I’d never dream of doing that with produce from a grocery store, it’s been handled too much for me to even know where it came from, let alone what has gotten onto the produce.

Be pro-active about your food and its potential sources.  Being apathetic or assuming that “they” are going to do the “best thing” for you is foolish.  By now, each and every American should be well aware that much of our legislation doesn’t originate with real need and real citizens, but rather from corporate and special interest entities with an economic reason to having laws created or changed.  They are the ones talking to our congressmen, our senators, our state representatives, our governors, and our president…not people like you and me who actually have budgets, families to feed, and neighbors just like us.  People like us are often the silent majority, failing to write our representatives, failing to speak out, failing to take a stand.

Don’t let your children and grandchildren go hungry or become sickly because you were too  lazy, too busy, too uninformed, or too apathetic to do anything NOW to ensure that the American food supply remains one of the least expensive, most plentiful and diverse food supplies in the world.  You have a chance to make a difference that you can be proud of, and you need to grab it with both hands.

Write to everyone up your legislature chain all the way to the White House.  Call them.  Tell them that diversity and freedom of choice needs to be a part of America’s food.  Heck, even just print this out, scrawl “I believe this is how it should be” and sign your name and print your address below it, then stick it in an envelope and mail it off.  It makes a whole lot more sense than mailing off a teabag anyhow!

You can also get more involved, even if you live in an urban or suburban environment by growing these heirloom vegetables and fruits and producing seeds or scions yourself to share.  Call your local extension and see if they are offering educational programs in regards to heirloom gardening and seed production, about grafting, about preserving these varieties.  If you live in the country where livestock is permitted, you can raise a few head of sheep, goats, cattle, horses, ponies, poultry, or hogs yourself.  You won’t get rich, and probably won’t break even on the project, so why not have something interesting, unique, genetically valuable, and so important to the American future right on your own property?  Besides, there is nothing as wonderful as an egg cooked from a chicken that has been allowed to wander the property, picking at insects and seeds (reducing insect infestations while they are at it too!) and providing some real country ambiance with their unusual appearance.  (I happen to be a HUGE fan of gentle cochins, but other breeds may fair better in  your  locale due to predators, climate, etc.  That’s also part of the reason there were so many breeds–they each have their strengths and weaknesses.)  That home-raised, free range egg will not be cheap, but the flavor…is unforgettable!


About giascott

Writer, blogger, cook, grandmother, mother, wife, radio personality, outdoor enthusiast, dog enthusiast, crafter, artist, and part-time nut~~I've earned a lot of t-shirts in my day! I'm one of those crazy independent women who can cut down a tree, build you a shed, sew you a dress, cook your dinner, make some soap, pitch a tent, build a fire, catch some fish, dig in the garden, chase a kid or two, write you a poem, paint you a picture, and a dozen other things...just don't ask me to sing! I'm also embarking on a relatively new portion of my life, one of being disabled. I'm learning some lessons along the way about a lot of things too.
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