Are Heirloom Crops Better?

If you’re talking about small farming for a local community, “land-raised plants are far superior, period.” On a global scale, it’s a trickier call.
  • Transcript


Question: What does the term “heirloom” mean when applied to crops?

Glenn Roberts: “Heirloom” is an interesting concept and only in the country of India have they bothered to delineate the real definitions by law.  An American parlance here in the North American continent, we generally assume the term “heirloom” to mean any plant, or possibly animal, that was in production and broadly popular prior to 50 years ago.  In 2010, that means 1960.  That would include parts of the green revolution and hybrids now. So there’s some controversy surrounding the word “heirloom.”  Good, bad, indifferent, it's probably above my pay grade.  We prefer to use the word “land-raised” to delineate the fact that older seeds, plants, animals are developed on a farm over ages, not just lately with the intervention of modern science.

What is the term for crops bred with scientific intervention?

Glenn Roberts: Well, we generally use the word around the globe, “Green Revolution,” but the advent of industrialization coincided around the world at different times, but certainly between, say the late 1700’s and the late 1800’s, in that century you saw tremendous industrial development everywhere, and it seems to be matched hand-in-hand with scientific advances, and it’s not to qualify whether it’s good or bad, but the scientific advances in seedsmanship, in my field, where you are dealing with grains, where a scientist is actually “improving,” and I put that in quotes, what had heretofore been only land-raised plants.

Are scientifically “improved” crops superior to the land-raised kind?

Glenn Roberts: I think—and I think that I can repeat what geneticists that are associated with breeding and addressing famine and addressing plant disease worldwide, in their later years seem to drift into where, I believe, the answer to your question lives.  And it’s a tough question.  So, the immediate answer is I think land-raised plants are vital and critical to our future.  Does that make them better?  I’m not so sure the quality assessment’s important, certainly my work with them, I like the foods associated with land-raised plants and animals at this point in history better than I like what we’ve been doing with the green revolution and modern scientific breeding.  That’s a personal opinion. 

On a scientific and worldwide judgment, I think that you have to take application into the answer.  If you’re talking about small farming for a local community and small scale distribution—which means radiuses of less than say, 20 miles—there’s no question that land-raised plants are far superior, period; and animals too.  Better flavor, better nutrition, all this.  Not documented in America, but some work in EU and certainly in UNESCO fields, certainly in Asia there’s been a lot of work on this.  But when you speak about commodities and having to "feed the world" and address famine and global climate change, if you lump all those things in, then the definition of the vigorous and vital nature of land-raised plants becomes pretty arcane immediately because those plants, the land-raised plants, are the building blocks for modern foods, period.  You can’t improve “modern foods” without the genetics of the original land-raised plants, which were in the public domain through history until relatively recently.  Now that’s more privatized, it’s more the domain of large corporations who are engaged in these massive economies. 

So, when you ask, are they better?  It brings this cascade of large concept into such a humble thing as a human improved plant system.  So, my answer is, on a small scale, there’s no question “land-raised” plants are superior.  On a large scale, I think the verdict’s out. 

Why are land-raised crops more expensive?

Glenn Roberts: In the short-term, land-raised systems in general, both plants and animals—so when you say land-raised animals, just make sure we have that clear that heritage breeds is the current term we use in America... When you think of that entire system of land-raised plants and animals, it’s far more expensive to start doing it since, in our sphere in North America, most of the land-raised farming has been gone for at least a century, and some of it’s been gone for almost two centuries.  And in my field, practically, it’s definitely been gone for more than a century. 

There are pockets of places, like in the wheat industry, where some land-raised plants survive in the commodities production system.  Kansas is a good example where Turkey Wheat survives.  Canada is even a better example where Red Fife Wheat, which both of these wheats—Turkey and Red Fife Wheats are both land-raised wheats—they’re in high production, not low production, and they are part of the commodities industry.  They’re still more expensive and in general, I think to begin farming land-raised plants, the way they’re supposed to be farmed, which means low fertility, low hydration requirements; they don’t require a lot of water, and in fact, some of them don’t want it, a high tolerance for pest and disease stress, a really high tolerance for climatic stress.  That’s how they survived over a millennia to become foods that we have in modern times. 

When you look at those, to begin using them is relatively inexpensive, which is why our NGO systems look at land-raised plants when they’re thinking about third world agriculture because it takes nothing to get it grown. 

Conversely, to apply those same land-raised systems to virgin ground where there hasn’t been a culture for land-raised systems, is very expensive.  You can’t go to a seed company and buy reasonably priced seed.  You can’t find it anywhere.  You can get 100 grams in a grain bank somewhere if you’re lucky and you understand science because all those sources use numbers and Latin, so you have to be familiar on a scientific basis with how botany and taxonomy and morphology works.  And that’s very difficult for a lay person to jump that little hurdle.  And then the next problem would be: what exactly are the methods that maintain crops in a land-raised system over the long-term?  So, once I say they’re very expensive in the short term because you have to be your own seed company, your own farmer, and then your own processor because a lot of these things aren’t suitable to modern processing.  Neither are they suitable to modern distribution. 

Once you cover those problems, or challenges, and you actually get past them, the expense of the system starts moving down.  And in the long term, having native fertility, which means you’re bring nothing onto a farm, having your own seed production, which means you’re not having to buy seed, and having your processing distribution being right in your immediate area, cuts all of these costs and they become far less expensive in the long term. But in the modern age, I’d say since 1970, when interest in this really began, there are some good examples, but they’re pretty sparse so far.  It’s coming, and it’s coming at exponential speeds.  The development is really gratifying to see, as I said here, I couldn’t have probably have discussed this two years ago with any credibility.  And it’s great to see it happening.

Recorded on April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George