by Andy Balestracci / photos by Holly Madrigal
For thousands of summers our extended human family has been intimately involved with a co-evolving partnership with the plant world. A promising fat seeded wild grass, Teosinte, originated in what is now central Mexico and has become one of the staple crops feeding the world: Corn. Your broccoli, kale, cabbage and brussels sprouts are all botanical kissing cousins from the same species, Brassica oleracea, that expanded and flourished in the wetter, cooler northern European climate.
This successful partnership with the plant world has fed and nourished human civilization, allowing it to grow to the current global population of 7 billion. But today food plant diversity loss and a subsequent staple crop bottleneck threatens this relationship. While 80% of our diet is plants, 60% of that energy intake comes from just five cereal crops. In the last 4 generations the vegetable varieties available from U.S. commercial seed companies has decreased a staggering 93%. At work is the consolidation of global seed companies supplying fewer varieties to large and often mono-cropped agribusiness farms, coupled with the bulk of humans residing in urban areas instead of the biodiverse agrarian communities of former generations.
But folks committed to preserving biodiversity and food security have not been idle. They’ve initiated a blossoming of community seed exchanges, seed banks, and seed libraries all over the country, including here in Mendocino County. They’ve also pioneered local initiatives like Mendocino County’s 2004 Measure H, which banned the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), the first of its kind in the United States. And they’ve organized events like the Heirloom Expo, scheduled for September 5-7, 2017 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
The Heirloom Expo is now in its sixth year and may be the largest public gathering of heirloom seeds and vegetable varieties on display in the country. Last year an estimated 20,000 farmers, foodies, activists and seed savers attended to witness the cornucopia of rare heirloom vegetables on display, including a literal kaleidoscopic pyramid of squash. Past speakers have included powerhouse food activists like Italian Slow Food founder Carlos Petrini, and Indian Seed activist Vandana Shiva. Whether you’re a farmer, hobby gardener, or just an eater, this singular event will inspire you to revitalize your personal partnership with plants.