This is going to be a far shorter post than I want it to be. I want to do my research and give you the numbers but I don’t have the time. I leave the country in just a few days, and writing for the blog has kept falling off my “must get done” list. I’m sorry. I’m not going to do these guys justice, and I’m going to fall silent again. Life is short and I’m busy living it, but I have so much I want to say. So, on with it!
I’ve written before about unusual and heirloom vegetables and the importance of maintaining a diversity of seed to enable us to grow crops that best suit our local conditions, that provide the quality or yield of food we seek and provide a rich genetic pool to draw on into the future. Crop diversity helps us to make best use of the land and resources we have, and to adapt to changing conditions as the climate shifts. Protecting plant diversity is important work, and seed banks around the world are contributing to it. It’s not only plant diversity that matters though: if we’re going to feed and clothe ourselves as best as we can, agricultural animal diversity matters just as much. Rare breed beasties need loving too.
Farming systems have become industrialised and standardised across much of the world. Just like crops, the animal breeds most commonly grown are those that give the greatest yield per unit cost, with little consideration given to animal health and welfare, suitability for conditions, environmental impacts, disease resistance or even quality of flavour. Much like supermarket tomatoes, many farmers are growing flavourless meat. For instance, a modern meat chicken takes as little as 30 days to raise from egg to plate1. From nothing to roast dinner in a month? That’s crazy selective breeding for yield and little else.
You may shrug and think that a pig-is-a-pig-is-a-pig, but as such farming practices spread and traditional livestock breeds are replaced by the fast-growing, so much genetic heritage, so much biodiversity, is lost. Along with that we’re losing cultural heritage: breeds that are markers of places or peoples, farming practices that are tied deeply to ways of life. All that is gone, left to fading memories, as heritage porkers are replaced by Large Whites2.
That’s the serious side of things – lost diversity, resilience and heritage – but we’re also losing flavour. Industrialised farming doesn’t grow for best taste. The aim is not the highest quality, merely consistency at a low market price. Does taste matter? Not to everyone, not to those on tight budgets, but to you and me? Sure does! One taste of proper free-range piggy ham from a breed grown for taste convinced me enough that I had to try the bacon, then the chorizo, just to be sure… I didn’t know pork could taste so good!
Lucky for me I live somewhere where I can buy free-range raised, rare breed meats. I can do this because where I live there are farmers who are passionate about rearing rare breeds and keeping all that heritage alive. Farmers who put animal welfare, product quality and taste above maximising products and have worked hard to build up enough of a market that they can grow businesses outside the cut-price supermarket paradigm. And yeah, I’m lucky that I’m in a position where I can choose to support them: I don’t eat much meat, but what I do eat, I can afford to source from these types of farmers. These farmers, who have become people I know.
Let me introduce you to two of them: Guy and Eliza from Mount Gnomon Farm. These are the folk who awakened me to the true beauty of bacon, grown from their drove of Wessex Saddleback pigs. They are fierce supporters of preserving rare breeds and choose their livestock based on an ethos of preserving rarity, suitability to farm conditions, animal well-being and quality of flavour. They are also truly lovely people, and last year I was lucky enough to visit them on the farm and see their passion in action. It’s a beautiful spot on the edge of the Dial Ranges in northern Tasmania, all green grass, red soil and dramatic sky. I’m very glad I had the chance to visit, to meet my meat and learn about the challenges and rewards of free-range rare-breed farming.
It was an inspiring trip for this sustainable eater, and one that you too can make if you’re going to be in Tasmania this weekend. You see, Guy and Eliza are so dedicated to what they do that this weekend they’re opening up the farm to the public to share their passion and show anyone who wants to know how their meat is raised. This Sunday (March 24th) they’re inviting you to a Rare Day Out at Mount Gnomon Farm.
You can visit the farm, get up close and personal with the animals, see what they’re doing to protect the soils and support on-farm diversity and even sample the very tasty meats their animals become. If you’re interested in heritage breeds or free-range farming, or just getting to know a little bit more about where your food comes from, I highly recommend you go along and check it out, and while you’re there, give Cyril a good scratch for me…
Why won’t I be there? because I’ll be on my way to Peru! Catch you in a month or so and as always, thank you for reading!
 “The first harvest might occur as early as 30-35 days and the last at 55-60 days.” Australian Chicken Meat Federation Inc.
 “The Large White has become well established as a major breed in virtually all pig producing countries in the world.” NSW Department of Primary Industries.
Over the weekend I spent a bit of time in the garden, weeding, composting and mulching. I’m preparing beds for the month ahead, keeping myself motivated through the hard graft (the gardens here are seriously neglected) by daydreaming about the harvests to come. As well as thinking about what will do well in my garden and what I like to eat I’ve been giving a bit of thought to biological and genetic diversity and wondering how my plantings might help to keep rare species and varieties alive.
So what’s the problem with food crop diversity? The limited types of plants we grow, and the few varieties (genetic strains) of those plants we do sow.
Modern agriculture promotes the growing of only a small sub-sample of possible food plants. The plants grown have been selected over the years for various reasons, including high yields, easy harvesting, long shelf-life, market familiarity and easy processing. As western industrial systems of agriculture have expanded across the world, western crops have moved with them, replacing traditional food plants. We’ve lost awareness of many alternative food plants along with the knowledge of how best to grow them, and along the way we’ve lost access to many of the food plants best suited to growing conditions in many parts of the world, and to the conditions predicted in a climate-change impacted future.
As farming has industrialised we’ve also become reliant on a small handful of the known varieties of the plants that have become our dominant crops. Where a century ago there were 400 known varieties of peas in cultivation, now there’s only 25 that are commonly grown and most of the original 400 have gone extinct. Although it might not seem important – after all we still have peas – this loss of genetic diversity is really quite worrying: genetic diversity is the thing that lets us adapt crops to changing conditions, environments and diseases.[1, 2] If we lose the genes, we lose the means to adapt our food plants to new growing conditions. This is a huge concern for food security, putting our agricultural systems at risk of collapse due to drought, climate change, plant diseases and even global politics – agribusiness is big business.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields – that’s how big the problem is. Some governments and science organisations are so concerned that they’ve established a secure seed bank to preserve rare seeds as best as possible, behind steel doors in a vault built into a mountain beneath the permafrost in the Arctic circle.[1, 3, 4]
Although it’s not only the lost biodiversity that’s the problem – there’s related issues about fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use , as well as lost potential medicinal and biotechnological properties, farming knowledge and cultural traditions – it’s the part that I can do a little something about in my own back yard*. I can plant unusual crops and rare varieties of veggies in my little patch, preserving diversity when I collect seed for the next year and expanding my culinary world at the same time. I’ve taken my day-dreams of fresh greens and home-grown spuds and checked them against growing guides and seed catalogues, getting an idea of what plants and varieties will do well on my fine, claggy soil (I could spend hours looking through seed catalogues, dreaming of gardens that will never be…). I’m choosing for suitability, flavour and biodiversity, tracking down suppliers of unusual, heirloom and organic seeds. There’s a world of weird veg out there that I can’t wait to explore!
Backyard-friendly unusual veggies that I’m contemplating growing include salsify, skirret, salad burnet, oca, mizuna and elephant garlic. I’m also planning to plant unusual varieties of more familiar crops:
- blue sapphire potatoes - seriously, purple spuds that are tasty too – What’s not to love?
- Chioggia beetroot - it’s stripey!
- purple sprouting broccoli - I grew this last year and am hooked
- “Caspar” white eggplants – early harvesting, so hopefully I’ll have better luck than I did last summer.
…and whatever else I come across that’s just a little different.
I’ll find out what works, save seed from the successes and grow them again next season, slowly selecting the genes that do best right here, creating a garden with a genetic profile that’s all it’s own.
What usual food plants or rare varieties are your favourites? What’s the weirdest edible you’ve ever grown? Know any good sources for heirloom seeds or kooky seedlings? Let us know what makes your garden a little more biodiverse!
Sources for seeds or unusual seedlings (Australia):
In Tasmania and interested in food security? Public lecture: Food Security and Nutrition – The GM Question
- Who? former Chief Scientist of Australia and CSIRO Fellow, Dr Jim Peacock AC
- Where? Stanley Burbury Theatre, University Centre, Sandy Bay campus
- When? 10th July 2012, 6.00 – 7.30 pm
- How? RSVP by email to UTAS.Events@utas.edu.au
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2010) Crop biodiversity: use it or lose it.
 Longyearbyen (2012) Banking against Doomsday; The Economist, March 10th, 2012.
 Altieri MA (1999) The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems; Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 74, Pp 19–31; Elsevier.
 Altieri MA & Merrick LC (1986) Agroecology and in situ conservation of native crop diversity in the third world; Chapter 41 in Wilson EO (1986) Biodiversity, Part 3; National Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Institution, USA.
* I can also do something about it through my grocery shopping, steering clear of the supermarkets for my produce, buying meat from rare-breed livestock and selecting unusual veg from the farmer’s market and local grocer.