Imagine yourself in Colonial, Revolutionary America. You're a farmer by trade, discovering the vast agricultural endowment of North America. You live in Pennsylvania and you've planted acres of wheat, oat, rye and barley. You've got healthy livestock providing you labor, meat and dairy. Your wife and kids maintain the vegetable garden, out of which you eat every day, gaining the sustenance needed to do the back breaking labor that is the development of early Colonial agriculture.
Now imagine yourself on a spacecraft leaving Earth and taking you to a new star or planet made suitable for the propagation of the human race. Imagine leaving your home because of nuclear destruction or widespread famine. Imagine opening your freeze-dried ration of Macaroni and Cheese, made from the last genetically enhanced wheat cultivar before it died off from disease, as you watch planet Earth grow smaller and smaller until it just fades away.
Amazing how far we have come in such a short amount of time. As the population grows exponentially, we are faced with a multitude of environmental challenges. In fact, overpopulation is attributed as one of the leading causes of depletion of Natural Resources.
Industrial agriculture has adapted to population growth in many ways. In the middle part of the latter century, the advent of Hybrid seeds revolutionized agricultural output. By design, these seeds are cross pollinated artificially and are meant to withstand disease, produce a high yield and maintain uniformity.
Through advancements in DNA studies, the commercialization of Genetically Modified Organisms is a massive debate that has been going on for years.
According to Wikipedia, a GMO is "an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques...DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes... GMOs are organisms which have inserted DNA that originated in a different species."
A popular example of a GMO is strawberries that have been enhanced by genes found in Arctic Char, as these fish are able to withstand extremely cold temperatures, thus the strawberries are endowed with an antifreeze, protecting them against spoiling in bad weather.
However, there is no mandatory labeling or regular testing of Genetically Modified Organisms, which means "these laboratory-created mutations are unlabeled, virtually untested and on grocery shelves everywhere," according to the Organization Say No To GMO.
A progressive, organic and very interesting alternative to all this agricultural chaos is Heirloom Farming. Many people are familiar with the Heirloom Tomato. You've probably had one before at a fancy restaurant with some Burrata cheese, or marveled at these multicolored, elephentital oddities at the grocery store, only to become enraged at their cost once in the check-out line. But Heirloom's go way beyond just tomatoes to include vast varieties of fruits and vegetables as well as garden and wild flowers.
There is a major movement in the United States through Heirloom Farming to not only provide an alternative to Genetic Modification and large scale agriculture, but to resurrect a historical way of life and further techniques of sustainability and organic farming.
Heirloom seeds were used widely pre-hybrid development; they can be dated back to Thomas Jefferson's garden and beyond, and are still around thanks to Open Pollination.
Heirloom Farming is beneficial as it promotes genetic diversity among plants, protecting them from disease. Large hybrid crops are Monocultural and are more susceptible to failure because they are all single strains. When there is no diversity within crops, an attack can wipe out acres and acres of wheat, corn or whatever that single strain may be.
Heirloom's can be grown in a much larger variety than conventional produce, and they taste far better as well. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is a leading website providing thousands of different seeds for purchase. I was amazed when I saw Green, Orange, Pink, Purple, Red, Striped, White and Yellow tomato seeds listed on their site.
I did a taste test for myself with Red, Yellow and Green Heirloom tomatoes and was blown away by how delicious and different each one tasted.
Heirloom farmers and enthusiasts geek out over history, heritage, quality and taste, just like us resurrectors of Pre-Prohibition drink. There are personal home gardens designed to mirror Victory Gardens which were planted during WWI and WWII. There are clubs, festivals, even villages designed around Heirloom Culture.
I was watching a recent interview conducted at an Heirloom Expo with a farmer who was talking about how differently colored heirloom fruits and vegetables are products of different mineral expressions. Meaning the red tomato I cut into at home provided one set of nutritional makeup, and the yellow and green a different set all together, which explains why they look and taste so differently from one another.
As beverage professionals, we are very keen to progressive trends, sustainability and support of small and local farming. Like truffle pigs, we become obsessed and search out the best tasting ingredients for our menu. We preserve our drinking heritage, why not preserve the produce that we use in our drinks as well?
Consider Heirlooms on your next trip to the Green Market. Yes, they can be expensive and may travel a distance, but with some research local growers can be found.
Try making your Bloody Mary or Maria with Heirloom tomatoes, you'll be surprised at how much better it tastes.
Enjoy our agricultural heritage while you still can, before we find ourselves living like the Jetsons, where Heirlooms are nothing more than carbon sheets manipulated and grown into Nanofood at the push of a button.