Monday, March 15, 2010

The Romance of Heirloom Crops

Ever since I first saw an heirloom tomato variety, I have been fascinated by the diversity in plant life that has been hidden from us, almost lost, by commercial standardization. Like so much diversity in our world today, linguistic, ethnic, culture, all being washed away by the hegemony of globalization. (Not to mention the liturgical diversity lost to Tridentine centralization...)

There is something so beautiful, at the risk of sounding cliched I will even say hauntingly beautiful, about these obscure varieties of crop (and, in fact, livestock). Especially when we have been raised as children now to imagine as prototypical a very standardized, artificial, mass-produced Form. You have to wonder how that effects the way we think in general. So when the horizons of those Forms are suddenly expanded with the knowledge of all sorts of amazing diversity in what we thought was basic, it is quite a paradigm breaking experience.

There is another fascinating and frightening chapter in that book I referenced earlier discussing the loss of genetic diversity in crops. Especially interesting to me is the romantic, almost Edenic description at the end of the chapter of all the various fruits and their original homelands and the wild diversity that still exists, however precariously:

All over the world there are fruits, nuts, and other foodstuffs vulnerable to genetic fortune. The story is usually the same. Commercial fruit growers have concentrated on a handful of varieties, discarding the others. They have bred the chosen few to maximize yield or for some specific trait that they value most. In the process, the plant's natural ability to withstand pests and disease has been undermined. Meanwhile, the genetic stores of old varieties and wild relatives alike have often been lost. Most of the time, commercial planters spray their way out of trouble. But sometimes, as when Gros Michel [banana] stumbled, the sprays prove useless and the crop is doomed.

It could happen to some of your favorites. There are six major types of pineapple, for instance. But we eat only one, the Smooth Cayenne. By neglecting the others, and ignoring the fruit's genetic base in the wild, we risk losing the genes they contain and undermining the future of the fruit. The mango is suffering similar genetic erosion. A thousand or more varieties of sweet potatoes in New Guinea are undocumented and uncollected. In the Himalayan foothills of northern India, cultivated varieties of garlic and its wild ancestors are dying out.

The farms and hedgerows of dozens of tiny Italian islands in the Mediterranean are the last refuges for many rare and ancient plants. Watermelons are holed up in Vulcano, tomatoes in Elba, and cabbages in Linosa. But as holiday villas and desertification encroach, for how much longer will they survive?

Or take the case of the world's most widely eaten nut. The peanut began in the jungles of South America. The Portuguese took it to Africa, from where it reached North America and first gained wide popularity. Today, it is not just the world's favorite nibble, but also the most important source of vegetable protein for half a billion of the world's poorest people, mostly in Africa. But cultivated peanuts have lost much of their natural resistance to disease. In an echo of the banana story, a fungus is chasing the nut across the world, and it has few genetic defenses. The peanut's wild ancestors are believed to live only in a tiny area of remote rain forest in eastern Bolivia. Researchers believe that if they can find them, they can extract genes that can counteract the fungus. But the area has been declared out of bounds to scientists because of local unrest caused by opposition to an oil pipeline through the forest. Can the peanut survive? It would make a great movie.

A few botanical Indiana Joneses are out there trying to track down the wild ancestors of many modern crops. One of them is Emile's colleague Stefano Padulosi, the world's foremost authority on rare, unusual, and plain exotic fruits and vegetables. Without him, the chic salad vegetable called rocket would still be a forgotten weed in the ruins of his hometown, Pompeii. His main stomping ground is Central Asia, the genetic heartland of many of our most familiar crops, where he tracks down both wild ancestors and the collections of traditional varieties. Soviet scientists were masters at the business of collecting obscure varieties. But many of their collections have languished since the Russians went home after 1989. And, like your grandfather's stamp collection, the fate of the plant collections is in doubt because nobody realizes their value. The loss of these plants could prove another casualty of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The future of the apple, for instance, may now hang in the balance. Around the world, farmers have over the centuries bred about ten thousand distinct varieties. Though only around fifty are grown commercially today, many more are kept for breeding purposes. Britain has more than two thousand apple varieties, and the U.S. government and Cornell University keep more than three thousand in research orchards. But by far the world's greatest genetic resource is in the Tien Shen mountains of Kazakhstan, where wild apple woods still grow. Ninety percent of the world's apples are believed to come from parent trees taken long ago from these woods. Many apple trees with potentially invaluable genetic traits are still in these hills. Or were when Stefano last looked. They could have been chopped down for firewood by now.

Stefano is also concerned about what has happened to the watermelons and pistachios that once grew wild across Uzbekistan, and the native walnuts of Kyrgyzstan, not to mention the equally prized forerunners of modem apricots, peaches, and almonds in their homeland of Afghanistan, a country where protecting wild genes does not have the highest priority right now.

Quixotically, perhaps, I am most interested in the fate of another native of Central Asia, the pomegranate, one of the world's juiciest fruits and prized for its exceptional nutritional qualities. Some say it fights prostate cancer. I enjoy its taste but, to be truthful, what interests me most is the prospect of one day going to find its genetic homeland in one of the world's oddest and most inaccessible countries.

Turkmenistan was, until his recent death, the fiefdom of Turkmenbashi, an eccentric leader of the former Soviet socialist republic. Once off the Moscow leash, he became an increasingly paranoid and megalomaniac leader of the independent state. Such was his omnipotence that he renamed the days of the week after members of his family and on a whim banned men from growing beards and anyone at all from sporting gold teeth. He prevented all access to the World Wide Web, shut down most of the country's universities, uprooted the state botanical gardens, and cut off funding for the country's other plant collections. Which left the pomegranate in the lurch.

People have been growing pomegranates in the remote valleys of the Kopet Dam mountains of southern Turkmenistan for six thousand years. While other countries grow pomegranates, the assemblage of ancient varieties is found only in Turkmenistan. In recent decades most of the old varieties have been lost from the country's orchards. Only around fifty are still grown. But on the edge of the mountains, starting in the 1930s, Soviet scientists assembled a unique collection of more than one thousand varieties of pomegranate trees at the Garigala experimental station. It is the holy grail of pomegranate biodiversity.

How is the collection doing? Few people really know. Most of the varieties have never even been catalogued, says Stefano. Garigala has been all but impossible to get to for some years. The last curator was Russian-born botanist Grigory Levin, who spent much of his life nurturing the collection, but eventually fled to Israel. He keeps in touch with the demoralized and frequently unpaid staff. "Many of the trees are being plowed under to make way for vegetables," he says.

The world's pomegranate collection is expiring. But the fruit could still survive. For Grigory says that the Kopet Dam mountains have one last treasure. Somewhere up there is the world's one and only wild pomegranate forest. Still flourishing, it is said. I want to walk through that forest, pick some fruit. Just for the hell of it. And now that Turkmenbashi is gone, I may get my chance.

"Thy plants are a paradise of pomegranates with the fruits of the orchard" - Song of Songs, 4:13


Mark of the Vineyard said...

You will sometimes come accross the strangest shaped fruits and vegetables at local week-end markets. Since they are "not according to European standards" they cannot be sold legally (you would not believe what minute details legislation goes into on these things). Apparently such "freaks" are quite common, only they are kept out of sight, and many people, when they do see them, think they're rare.

Jonathan said...

I'm confused about the sweet potatoes and New Guinea. They're a "New World" crop Ipomea batatas.

But yes it is indeed sad, but that is the sad state of wanting to control and manipulate nature to bend to man's will. I really appreciate the fact that a lot of the fruits my ancestors ate have yet to be domesticated (or retain most of their wild habits). Sadly since they're becoming the latest all the rage foods, well we'll see how that goes. Have any of you had the pleasure of having Mamey ? Good stuff.