The climate of the world we live in isn’t the same as “way back when.” Weather patterns have become more extreme: summers are, depending on where you live, significantly harsher, and winters have become inconvenient and messy. It’s inevitable, then, for these changing weather patterns to take their toll on agricultural production, resulting in higher food prices across the board.
Poverty has always existed on this planet. However, extreme weather conditions like drought and flooding disrupt supplies of mass market crops of corn, wheat and soy — building blocks of most of the world’s diet today — which adds financial pressure to tight household budgets already beset with the trials of unemployment and inflation. 2008 saw widespread global protests about rising food prices, and, based on the riots in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year, the challenges of ensuring equitable food access aren’t going away anytime soon.
Part of the problem with today’s food supply is that our diets have adapted to fuel the growth of large-scale, industrialized agriculture. This business model favors food varieties with the highest yield, which can be produced in the shortest amount of time, with the least amount of money — which neglects foods that don’t fit into the framework. Just look at corn, America’s number one field crop. It’s highly productive, subsidized, and thanks to the mechanization of farming, easy to plant and harvest. Douse the plants with a regular spray of pesticides and let nature do its work.
Or take the case of chickens. Cornish cross broilers are the industry favorite because of their fast growth rates, reaching ideal harvest weights (four to five pounds) in just eight weeks. Pack them together in a shed, keep them eating 24/7, and they’ll be market-ready before you know it.
Pair this economic rationality with a global population that has more than tripled in the past century, as well as an increasingly affluent population in Asia adopting the Western diet rich in meat-based products, and you’ve got an unsustainable pyramid of big, hungry demand, tenuously balanced on a narrow base of crops.
The most recent study available on crop extinction (from 1983) by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) reveals that 93 percent of seed varieties sold in the U.S. in 1903 were extinct by 1983. This means that we have a significantly smaller pool of genetic traits that allow crop varieties to adapt to different environmental conditions, such as excessive heat or cold, too much water or too little. With a planet currently struggling with the challenges of climate change, wouldn’t it be nice to know that, no matter what happens to our environment, there’s always going to be food available, somewhere, somehow?
So what can we do? For starters, shop at your local farmers’ markets. Seek out farmers and purveyors of heirloom vegetables: not just tomatoes, but beans, eggplant, squash, radishes and potatoes as well. If none are to be found, grow heirlooms yourself by joining a seed bank in your area or purchasing transplants of heirloom vegetables from your local farm or greenhouse. And this extends to the meat-eaters as well; while Angus and Wagyu beef are as tasty as they come, grass-fed Longhorn and Pineywood varieties aren’t too bad either. (And with their smaller amounts of saturated fats, they’re healthier for you, too.) If you can grow chickens, look for the heirloom varieties, like the Light Sussex or Pekin Bantam breeds.
Eating (and growing) less common, non-supermarket varieties not only opens up a world of flavors, textures and dishes, but by creating a demand for these products, you’re actually helping to expand that narrow base of the pyramid. If each one of us starts to incorporate a few heirloom varieties in our diet and share our discoveries within our communities, we’d collectively be taking a bigger, concrete step towards securing our future food supply than any agricultural policy or seed bank can do.
What are your favorite heirlooms to grow or eat?
About the author: Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.