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Food for thought on plant extinction and heirloom veggies

Has survival of the fittest food plants raised the prospect that a bacterial pestilence could ruin the world’s food supply?

Maybe, according to a story in National Geographic published in the summer of 2011.

Here’s one of the striking paragraphs in the story:

"Most of us in the well-fed world give little thought to where our food comes from or how it’s grown. We steer our shopping carts down supermarket aisles without realizing that the apparent bounty is a shiny stage set held up by increasingly shaky scaffolding. We’ve been hearing for some time about the loss of flora and fauna in our rain forests. Very little, by contrast, is being said or done about the parallel erosion in the genetic diversity of the foods we eat."

To read the entire story, click here.

Joe Foegen, a supervisor in the merchandising department at the Lexington Co-operative Market, and Heather Lazickas, promotions and education coordinator for the Elmwood Avenue health food co-op, talked about this during an interview with me earlier this week for today's WNY Refresh story on heirloom vegetables.

"This comes back to the corporatization of agriculture," Foegen said. "Look at Monsanto nowadays, which patents seeds. Farmers aren’t even allowed to save [those] seeds nowadays or else they’re sued."

The two recommended the documentary film "Food Inc.," for those interested in exploring the topic.

We talked about how today’s standard wheat has been modified and is much different than the wheat of our grandparents’ generation.

"That’s why they say there’s so much gluten intolerance now, because it’s not the wheat that it was," Foegen said.

A book called "Wheat Belly," written by a cardiologist, Dr. William Davis, explores this in more detail – and a dispute has given rise in the nutrition community as a result. Most nutritionists still insist that a balanced diet include whole or multi-grain foods, but concern is growing about so-called "genetically modified organisms," or GMOs, in the world’s food supply.

Lazickas cautions that there are probably only about a dozen genetically modified plants that consumers can buy in most stores. But they are big ones, and include corn and soybeans.

GMOs are mostly in processed foods – but don’t expect to find their names on most labels of foods that contain them, after the U.S. Senate voted this week  not to require they be listed. They turned down an amendment by a 3-1 margin in the Farm Bill before Congress.

Whatever you believe about GMOs, cross-breeding and mass farm production has dramatically changed the world food supply, the co-op staffers said.

Take bananas.

"The bananas we eat now are not the bananas people ate 20, 30 years ago, and [scientists] say they won’t be the bananas we eat seven, eight years from now," Lazickas said.

Cavendish is the variety preferred across the globe.

"They’ve been bred so they can be picked while they’re still green and they can ship it to us. That’s what it all comes down to, the ability to harvest and ship long distances."

A disease has begun to damage Cavendish trees. Infected trees still grow, but bear far less fruit.

Another variety of bananas will be used to replace the Cavendish, one that hopefully will be able to resist the disease that’s damaging the preferred variety, Foegen said.

Which brings us back to heirloom vegetables, the subject of my story today in WNY Refresh.

An important point experts made with me is that traditional plants are great, but that many cross-bred hybrids are wonderful, too.

We wouldn’t have the nectarine without them, and many plants and veggies have been cross-bred to resist the kinds of pests that endanger the Cavendish banana.

Like wine varietals, heirlooms are not the end all and be all for everyone.

"There’s nothing wrong with the conventionals," said Patti Jablonski-Dopkin, general manager at Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island St., on the city’s West Side. "Most of them are tried and true producers. If you’re looking to feed your family and you’re looking for basics, there are still delicious conventionals that will produce well for you.

"You have your meat and potato eaters. The conventionals are for those who are used to just buying from the supermarkets."

Some things I didn’t have room in the story for but thought worth sharing:

• Urban Roots is in a West Side in a neighborhood known for its new immigrants.

"People come for the Thai green eggplant [heirloom]. Maybe there’s a little bit of a language barrier," clerk Adrianna Zullich said, but customers can describe the look and taste of the plant so that employees know what it is.

• There’s a local feel to heirlooms.

"An heirloom is something that stays local," Foegen said, "and the beauty of heirlooms is when you get heirloom seeds, unlike hybrid seeds – let’s use the tomato as an example – that real red roma that you see, that’s been bred to travel, where an heirloom roma can adapt to whatever environment where it’s growing. So if you grow it in Western New York, and you save the seeds and plant them the next year, each year it’s going to get stronger and stronger and more adapted to this area, so the flavor is going to become more enhanced...

"I grew chocolate tomatoes last year, that’s what they’re called because they have a brownish color. Oh my God, they’re so good!"

Those I spoke with for the story convinced me to plant some heirlooms in a new raised bed garden in the coming days.

Feel free to share some of your garden tips – conventional or otherwise – on this blog.

– Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon

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