Oldways, an organization dedicated to preserving the environmentally sound traditions of world cultures, is grappling with what most people who cook, grow or eat produce already know: American vegetables are losing their personality. By way of consolation, they are easy to ship, resistant to disease, ripen at predictable times and look exactly the way the average consumer expects them to. The tomato that traveled for days to get to the store may be tasteless and spongy, but it is perfectly round and mostly red.
It is also almost certainly a hybrid, made by breeding two different strains of tomato parents in the hopes of capturing the best qualities of both. Growers of hybrids are dependent on seed companies: if you save the seeds of a hybrid tomato and try to plant them, you will come up with a sort of
genetic mutant. But the hybrids are a dependable product. More and more, they are replacing the open-pollinated strains--those that pollinate themselves with the help of the wind and willing insects--that grew on American farms and in our backyards just 50 years ago.
This loss of biodiversity has risks. "Look at what happened in Ireland," says Michael Ableman, a Santa Barbara market gardener who has traveled widely, studying farming techniques. "A million people starved because one single vulnerable potato was planted in their fields. In Peru, on the other hand, I saw fields the size of backyards with 30 varieties growing in them. That is security."