Heirloom Seeds Are Making a Come Back in the Food World

What are heirloom and heritage seeds? Read how heritage apples, Filipino heirloom rice and the indigenous American tepary bean are being saved from extinction.
Nov 7
/
3 mins
·
Nov 7
/
3 mins

Around the last century, the world has lost 75% of its edible plant varieties but why should we care? You only have to look back at the Irish Potato Famine to see some of the risks that come with being dependent on so few crop varieties. Disease is one thing but more and more we will look to these ancient crops to ensure food security in the future as we see major changes to our climate.

What are heirloom and heritage seeds?

These are terms used to describe old crop varieties. Exactly how long they need to exist before being considered an heirloom varies among the plant experts but can be anywhere from pre World War 2 to those that have existed long before modern agriculture. These are seeds that have been passed down and protected through the generations and have remained as they have always been without being genetically modified.

The tepary bean back from the brink of extinction

Take Ramona Farms who are bringing back the tepary bean. This crop was once a staple among indigenous Americans and had nearly become extinct due to a lack of water. The founder Ramona and her husband Terry began farming in the 1970’s on the same plot of land as her parents on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona. They had discovered that Ramona’s father had left a few seeds of white and brown tepary beans in glass jars in a trunk in the old house that she had grown up in. Some of the community elders asked if they could grow the tepary bean (Bafv) once again., and so the adventure began. They started with these few seeds and learned how to produce the beans on a small scale before scaling up into a larger enterprise. They have now brought the bean back to their local community and surrounding areas, reviving a slice of their food history which was once thought to be lost.

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Tom Brown

The search for “lost” heritage apples

Meet Tom Brown, a retired chemical engineer who since the 1990’s has been traveling around Appalachia in the United States on the hunt for rare and lost heritage apples. To date he’s saved around 1,200 different apple varieties from extinction. What started as a fun challenge to see how many he could find, has turned into something much more. He has his own apple orchard called Heritage Apples, showcasing about 700 of his finds and his quest has led him to befriending strangers over a shared interest for apples. Many who have clues on where to find these apples are in their 80’s or 90’s on average, so Tom knows the time is now to go about preserving this bit of agricultural heritage, to ensure we can continue to enjoy these delicious fruits in years to come.

Filipino heirloom rice

Ifugao rice, is something of a rarity even for Filipinos. It is a heritage food produced in a small part of the Philippines by the indigenous Ifugao tribes up in the rice terraces of the Cordilleras. Unlike commercial white rice which is produced in the lowlands, Ifugao rice isn’t fed by fertilizers, but instead by the minerals in the rich mountain soil and is still harvested using the traditional tools and methods that have stood the test of time. Entrepreneurs and local farmers are working hard to bring awareness to the different varieties of heritage rice that exist in the Philippines - sticky rice varieties which make their way into Filipino desserts to grains known for their striking colors from a bold violet to a rusty red. If you want to learn more about Filipino food traditions as well as cooking techniques check out our Filipino program here.

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