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Getting to know food

He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herbs for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth. Psalm 104:14

Greetings, folks! Last month I mentioned I would write about organically grown and genetically modified food, but have decided to address that issue after talking a little about the seeds and plants being grown for our health and consumption. There isn’t space here to detail the downward spiral of our nation’s food supply over the last 50 years, but a very simplistic answer is that we got greedy. Scientists and chemical companies figured out how to make plants grow larger, to be more resistant to pests and to increase crop yields. It sounds like a good thing, but the long-term effects of this strategy have been devastating. Hybrid varieties of vegetables replaced open-pollinated varieties because disease resistance and tougher skins could be bred to allow for safe travel over long distances and extended shelf life at the market.

Commercial growers and home gardeners alike appreciated the qualities of these new hybrids and began to prefer them over the traditional open-pollinated (now known as “heirloom”) varieties, giving no thought to qualities like taste, color or texture. Many old varieties of vegetables and fruits began to vanish from the garden landscape.

Heirlooms versus hybrids

The exact definition of an heirloom plant varies from source to source, but gardening experts generally agree that heirlooms are open-pollinated cultivars developed and grown during earlier times.

Hybrids are the artificially pollinated plant varieties used in the majority of today’s massive, industrialized agricultural operations and are the varieties increasingly marketed to gardeners. Commercial hybrid seed stems from the crossing of two different plant varieties, or parent lines, each highly inbred to produce certain desired characteristics such as disease resistance, uniform size or increased productivity.

What can be done? We can embrace the old! We can choose to grow heirloom varieties in our gardens, buy heirloom seeds from dedicated seedsmen, save our seeds from year to year, pass them around to other gardeners and support growers who sell heirlooms.

Alice Russell, also known as “Me Me,” is a guest columnist. She can be reached at letstalkherbs@gmail.com.

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