Why do heirloom plants matter to us for preparedness and even survival? And what are heirloom plants, anyway?
Heirloom plants are plants that have been passed down from generation to generation in a family. The heirloom plants may have been essentially unchanged for a very long time.
Most of the plants that people use for food are not heirloom plants, but are hybrids. Hybrids are plants that have been bred from different types of the same plant. The varieties that go into hybrids are usually different enough to make the hybrid unlikely to produce good seeds. The advantage of hybrids is that they usually produce bigger plants and may grow faster and require less care.
The plants that are used for the hybrids are often developed mostly for the benefit of the growers and middlemen who have the plants before they get to the consumer. This means the food plants will have tougher skins to make them ship easier without getting bruised or crushed. The plants may have a more uniform shape and size to make machine harvesting easier.
These characteristics of the food plants are often developed without regard for how nice it is to eat them. Taste and tenderness are often casualties of good shipping and storage qualities.
Hybrids are not necessarily GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), but GMO plants take hybrids' tendencies to a new level. GMO plants are developed for even more convenience of growers. Some of them have been developed to require less or no pesticides at all. GMO plants have had genes artificially inserted into them in laboratories to make them poisonous or unhealthy or unappealing to insects. Fortunately for large agribusinesses that like GMO plants, American consumers are often less discriminating about the foods they eat than insect pests. lol.
I used to live in a community dominated by a very large agricultural university. I took some agriculture classes there. This gave me some insights into how big agribusiness works, that most people never get. This is because most of the people in the world have little understanding or connection to what they eat.
Only a few generations ago most people made their living by some kind of agriculture. Only a few people did other things for a living. The people alive on Earth now have completely reversed this.
Most of us do other things for a living and only 14% of workers in the USA now do agriculture related work. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Farming-Fishing-and-Forestry/Agricultural-workers.htm#tab-6 The percentage is lower in many other countries, and higher in others.
The USA has some huge agricultural businesses, especially in the midwest. Most of these involve grains. They have giant farm equipment that a worker may drive in one direction for miles in one day, plowing, or planting or harvesting. The next day that worker will go back to that same piece of giant farm equipment and drive in the same direction for more miles before they even turn around and go back in the other direction. The owners of these huge agricultural businesses are often businessmen who look on this agriculture as another way to make money. They want a good investment that pays off well for the money they spend.
The healthiness and other benefits to the people who will eventually eat those plants, in those fields that run for miles, is not part of the business of agriculture for those business owners.
Even the possibility of losing a food crop that is vital to the survival of millions of people is not a consideration for those big agribusiness owners. This is a risk they take when they use GMO and hybrids for such huge monoculture and all of those agribusinesses use the same GMO or hybrid variety of food plant.
The world has come very close to losing wheat because of a disease that attacked most of the main varieties that were grown. It was a rare disease resistant heirloom wheat plant that saved wheat for us all.
The world has suffered through many famines due to diseases of important food crops. When we depend on a very few GMO and hybrid plants we risk a much worse famine.
This post is getting much too long, so I will break here and continue tomorrow.