Tuesday, 17 June 2008

On the Joys of Old-Fashioned Vegetables

Purple podded peas had a fascinating and extremely thought-provoking post on the recent growth of in interest heritage vegetables, the possibility that we are all being vegetable luddite sand the advantages (or not) of the prevalent modern hybrid, that glossy and proportionally perfect varieties generally found in seed catalogues and supermarkets alike. It has prompted me to put some of my thoughts about diversity, growing ‘old-fashioned’ vegetables and agri-business into some kind of order, so apologies in advance for topic-theft.

A number of criticisms can (and have) been levelled at the love the average modern organic-goddess displays for heritage varieties of vegetables and organic gardening and her literal and metaphorical distaste for anything with F1 on the packet. A quick flick through the posts that have accumulated on this blog in the last month and a half illustrates the point nicely, I feel. These arguments against a preference for all things diverse and organic boil down (just like my father cooking cauliflower) to one basic point; F1 varieties, pesticides and homogeneity have evolved because they are better than that which earlier existed. In other words, Darwin lives! Traditional varieties simply couldn’t cut the mustard (again, not unlike my father’s cauliflower). More importantly, pesticides and chemical fertilisers are essentially for feeding the growing world population.

I think this argument against heritage veg misses some major points. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I believe unequivocally that diversity is to be valued, not only in a relative sense, for the advantages it can give, but for its own sake as well. There is a practical aspect to this – I find it hard to believe that diversity doesn’t give some kind of protection against diseases, climatic variation and sheer bad luck. Some varieties are also unquestionably better suited to some local conditions than other. But I was also struck by the aesthetic dimension to diversity. Quite simply, a more diverse world seems structurally more appealing. Who wants vegetables that all taste and look the same? Modern palates are dulled enough as it is. Every autumn I search in vain for apples in local shops that aren’t granny smiths, coxes, great red waxy things or golden delicious, when I know somewhere in Britain can be found hundreds of varieties, each with their own taste, texture and smell. For followers of Darwin (and no, in case you were wondering, I don't deny evolution), it should not be forgotten that according to evolutionary theory more species should evolve as others die out, thus maintaining diversity, unless of course some great deus ex machina comes along and screws the whole system up as successfully as humans have done.

Beyond these questions of diversity and evolution lurk the spectres of profit and choice. Promoters of modern hybrids write as if consumers have had a free choice in selecting the restricted range of varieties currently on offer. They haven’t. They have been presented with a limited selection, often sweetened by reduced prices, and have had little choice but to take it. This choice has not been based on the needs of the allotment gardener, but on ease of mass production by a decreasing number of seed companies operating on an ever-greater scale. Cooks have been told that they should prioritise appearance over taste, the perfectly round tomato with a thick-skin that travels well in lorries over the local, bumpy, fragile fruit with the amazing taste. No-one has ever asked me which I prefer. Nor should it be forgotten that seed companies have a huge amount to gain from producing hybrid varieties where the seeds can’t be harvested by grower to produce the same type, because then gardeners require new packets of seed every year. I am astounded by the moral integrity and commercial bravery of companies like Real Seeds which appear to be trying to put themselves out of business by encouraging gardeners to collect their own seeds.

On the need for modern farming methods in order to feed the world, all I can say is that a couple of years ago I lived with an Ethiopian student of agriculture who was writing a masters thesis on how organic production was ultimately a more sustainable way of feeding central Africa. I read his thesis and talked to both him and his friend from Uganda. His conclusions weren’t quite ready to change the world, but what has vividly stayed in my mind is their anger over the companies who had their countries dependent on buying seeds, buying fertiliser and pesticide every single year, when huge percentages of the population were living on less than one dollar a day. Their frustration about how the need for cash to buy new seed every year has tied even small-scale producers into producing cash-crops for export was truly memorable. Their point? Does the West really think that Africa has never come up with its own ways of dealing with the pests, diseases and weather patterns that it has had to live with for millennia? Sure, they may not be doing a great job right now, but that is precisely because diversity and sufficiency on a community level were key ingredients in traditional methods of agricultural risk management.

In some ways talk of feeding the world is irrelevant. I’m not trying to feed the world. I’m trying to feed myself. And if everyone was given the space to do that, maybe feeding the world wouldn’t be such a problem.


jenn said...

I found this site that sells organic vegetable garden seeds. Whole And Natural.com. Their prices are the lowest at about 1.50 per packet.

Magic Cochin said...

That article got you thinking – there are good arguments on both sides here. But regulations seem to protect big business rather than the smallholder using traditional growing methods. Encouragement to save seed from varieties that do well in local conditions shouldn't be blocked by draconian legislation.
We are lucky that we don't rely on a good crop from our garden for our survival. But when a crop fails it can make us appreciate how tricky it is to have good yields year on year - and therefore be tempted to sow high yielding F1 varieties and use non-organic methods.
If I find a heritage variety that consistently does well in my garden and tastes good I treasure it and save seeds for the next year.

Remember to support the Heritage Seed Library http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl/index.php


Doug said...

I think the Cambridge Apple Day makes the point nicely. Modern hybrids have "evolved", via commercial selection, to dominate the market through appeal to the eye (large, round, red) and not the taste buds. Heritage apples are often small and odd looking, but have simply outstanding flavour.

But on pure aesthetics, google image the moon and stars watermelon.