Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Frozen Food Isle

Many Americans are hearing the name, Svalbard for the first time. The Norwegian government, working with the Global Crop Diversity Trust opened today the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This structure, on an island well-inside the Arctic Circle, is a safe and very cold place to store representative samples of crop seed from all over the world.
The media, as they are wont to do, have dubbed this “The Doomsday Vault”, conjuring images of Hollywood disaster movies, wherein the human race (represented by hapless but stylish young people) fends off asteroids, comets, killer viruses, and occasionally aliens. This sensationalism belittles the importance and the project and the present threats to our food stocks. The project will have more immediate and pragmatic uses than repopulating the Earth in the aftermath of bionic space-zombies.
Many are unaware that the majority of our produce- everything from apples to zucchini- are grown from a decreasing number of strains. Even a hundred years ago, the produce in a local farm stand would likely have been different from the produce in a farm stand fifty miles away. New strains are bred (and engineered) for a variety of reasons. Some produce a greater yield per acre, some resist specific pests, or in some cases, crops are bred to look good on a shelf after a long trip. While there are undeniable benefits to some of these changes, we as a society seem again to be ignoring some of the long term implications of these decisions.
Among these implications are the creation of a genetic bottleneck as a small number of breeds begin to predominate; the loss of some of our historical and cultural fabric as unique and sometimes storied stocks are mothballed; and a dwindling number of choices at the supermarket.
The Svalbard project is insurance against ongoing shortage resulting from the genetic bottleneck we’re creating, from climate change, and from other humanmade and natural problems. But, government is not the only solution. The reader can be part of a similar biological archive by making some simple choices. Favoring in-season crops, buying from local farmers’ markets, and raising a garden from heirloom seed are inexpensive ways to support local crop strains, biodiversity, and a culinary legacy.

Image source: Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Norway

Post script: "Heirloom seed" sounds expensive, but it generally isn’t. In fact, many people give it away. For those readers interested in getting some heirloom seed of their very own, I provide links to some dealers and resources. You can also probably find sources at local garden clubs, and can certainly find other dealers on the Web:
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (This is where ERD shops)
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Native Seeds


Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

I once landed in Denver International Airport in the company of the CEO of a fairly large corporation. It was lunch time and we were short of time. After viewing the limited offerings in the concourse we occupied, he chose McDonalds. His reasoning was, "we know what we're getting."

I call it the McDonalds mentality. We shop for the familiar. We like uniformity and conformity. It influences our decisions at a level below our general awareness. Grocery shopping fits that pattern. Because of that mentality we miss out on many good things.

Biodiversity is critical to our future. Almost weekly we read of new medicines, or toxins, or fabrics, or whatever -- created from previously neglected plants. God put 'em here for a reason. Sometimes we just need to figure out what that reason was.

Preserve diversity. The next time you're in the grocery store, pick something new and different to try for supper. Then thank the next farmer you see for our bountiful food supply.

I also like ERD's idea for heirloom gardens. It is a wonderful educational project for kids. Maybe it needs to be a class project at your local elementary. It doesn't take much soil. I usually raise tomatoes in buckets on my patio.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Neal Stephenson wrote something about commercial (and dietary) homogeneity in Snow Crash. Now where did I put that book...
I think just about every person with a yard or a balcony should grow a little of their own food. At the risk of being an heirloom seed dogmatist, the average grocery store tomato is just plain sad, compared to what comes from proper seed in ones own garden. I'm glad (and not at all surprised) to read that you do this.
You're dead-on about conserving biodiversity. I tend to think of biodiversity and ecosystems management (and conservation/preservation in general) as being similar to archives; we preserve things that seem like they will have enduring or future value, even if we don't yet fully understand that value. It's fantastic to see a project like Svalbard that so pragmatically combines these two ideas.
I'll be writing on heirloom seed a little more, in the spring. In the mean time, I'll add links to some heirloom seed dealers, for those readers who are interested in getting their hands dirty...

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...


You may also want to take a look at Agricultural Biodiversity Blog.

Sue said...

My first introduction to the use of heirloom seeds, was 15 years ago at an Appalachian Studies Conference by Bill Best of Berea, see the The Susatainable Mountain Agriculture website. We don't have suitable garden space, but we use containers on our patio to grow tomatoes and some other salad makings from heirloom seeds.

Genetic diversity is also an issue with animals. Two ways to encourage diversity in egg laying chickens is to look for stores (such as natural food stores) that sell eggs produced locally by small chicken farmers, and to buy brown as well as white eggs.

Invisible G. said...

E.R. Dunhill, on an unrelated issue, I'm curious to know your thoughts on H. Clinton. Do you think the American public will choose a female president? Or do you think the American public would rather choose an African American male (another milestone considering the race tensions), than allow a woman to shatter the uppermost glass ceiling?

BTW, lovely post.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PHP, Sue,
Thanks for the links. These look like good sites.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Invisible G.,
Thank you for reading and commenting.
I’m curious to know my thoughts on Hillary as well. I think she has the skills to do the job, but I’m concerned about her politics and her ethics. The American public vis-à-vis a female president is a different question. I think the public could elect a woman in 2008, though I’m not sure they’ll elect this one.
Personally, I think this race says a great deal for the status of women in politics. I know many women voters who generally pull the lever for the democrats, who don’t mind a bit not voting for Clinton on the basis of her politics and ethics. If voters saw women in government as particularly contentious, I think the issue would already be tracing clear battle lines.
As for Barrack, I think he is electable, though I think he needs to be particularly careful about his running mate.
I’m sure some of the more politically-minded contributors on BIA will post more about these candidates as the primaries find resolution, and we start marching toward November.