This Green and Pleasant Land: Heritage Breeds and Native Varieties

From the end of the 19th century up to the present day, humans have been migrating near and far for economic opportunities, causing rapid urbanisation and fundamentally changing the way we all get fed. In the UK, households that once grew much of their own fruit and vegetables now rely on our dedicated farmers to grow the fresh produce we all need. As a result of these changing habits, over this period of time the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has shrunk up to 75% .

In response to this modern lack of variety in our fresh produce, growers are seeing a resurgence in the popularity of ‘Heritage’ or ‘Heirloom’ fruit and vegetables. These are native and by definition, old varieties that are beginning to be seen on restaurant and pub menus and popping up at local greengrocers, farm shops and farmers markets. These crops are often distinct in appearance from our current mainstream varieties; a classic example of which would be the knobbly white carrots native to the UK that are resurging in popularity because of their sweetness in comparison to their orange-coloured Dutch cousins. The orange carrot with which we are so familiar, was in fact cultivated back in the 17th Century as a new and interesting variety for a public excited by novel objects. Not much has changed. Heeding this, we should be aware that an exciting new look can be deceiving.

The funky shaped and coloured vegetables that appear on supermarket shelves under nostalgic and premium labels are often pretenders and are not in fact, heritage at all; many originate from seed varieties developed in the 1980’s . To be a true heritage breed, fruit and vegetables must come from a seed or be grafted from a plant that has been saved by a farmer or gardener, then cultivated in seasons afterwards – generally for over 50 years. These seeds then create a providence of a type of fruit or vegetable that is suited to the land it has been grown in.

Seeds themselves are truly remarkable. 90% of all the food we eat on the planet originates from seeds; that’s fruit, vegetables and grains. In 2012, scientists in Russia grew small, snowdrop like flowers from seeds carbon-dated at over 32,000 years old! The resilience of plant life can sometimes be forgotten in a world that has become accustomed to the disposability of food.

Possibly the most iconic of traditional British produce, varieties (or cultivars) of apples are naturally hugely diverse. Yet, on shelves consumers are likely to see only the same small collections of non-native varieties, such as Braeburn or Golden Delicious. Speaking with us on the topic of native apples and crop resilience, Scott Raffle, Knowledge Exchange Manager for fruit at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) explains: “I got into the industry thirty years ago and when I came to Kent in 1990, the vast amount of the apple industry was based on Cox and Bramley. These were traditional English varieties. Bramley’s are very well known for being English; it was a chance seedling found in somebody’s garden in Nottinghamshire and has remained one of the big culinary varieties that we grow.” That ‘chance seedling’ still stands 200 years later and every single Bramley apple grown since has incredibly, originated from that one piece of history. Despite this undeniable heritage, Bramleys generally would never be sold under the ‘Heritage’ label, being such a mainstream cultivar.

Left to their own devices, all apple trees would produce their own single variety. Over the centuries, to preserve the flavours, textures and crop health, the growers of desired apple varieties have been using Rootstock and Coin growing methods to pick and choose the attributes that pleased them. In an age of mass consumption however, the problem now lies in supermarkets, rather than with farmers dictating those attributes. Scott further explains, “If you were to grow Gala with its own roots, it would be a different shaped tree and a different size.” This, however, makes them harder and more costly to harvest. What is normally dictated to farmers is to grow “cultivars which are acceptable to the market, so have a good colour, good appearance and good shelf life – and obviously good flavour (but flavour is a very subjective thing).”

For the wealth of over 1000 cultivars of apples in the UK, we have British horticulturists of the Victorian era to thank and the high levels of experimentation and competition that sprung up amongst them. “There are vast numbers of older varieties. Some of the well-known ones are things like Ellison’s Orange or James Greave that many older people would recognise and remember their grandparents growing in the back gardens.”

Crop breeding, despite occasionally being criticised as ‘Franken food’, is not the enemy of good agriculture. These practices actually stretch back to the first primitive farmers who selected seeds for the next crop from their strongest, tastiest plants. Modern science has contributed to these traditional practices by allowing for great advancements in the ability to edit and splice seeds at a genetic level. The difference in this level of crop breeding, however often means that while crops can be made with hardy attributes, they are not necessarily the variety specific to the land that they come from and therefore, best suited to the soil.

Trying to develop the best crop for the end consumer is not bad thing, but it does need to be done in close consultation with the earth. Simon Calder, from one of our salad and baby leaf producers, Blackdown Growers explained to us the trial and error involved in cultivating strong leaves with terrific flavour: “That’s a challenge; it’s down to us growers to make sure that we are doing the best we can, that our farm managers can do the trials and find the best seed for producing the best leaf.”

“A resilient food system is sustainable for the long-term. It springs back to shape and recovers quickly from rapid changes to the environment – whether it’s a new strain of disease or the impacts of climate change. This natural resilience can only come from enhanced diversity, in as many forms as possible.”
The Seed Co-operative

Realistically, a nationwide resurgence of alternative, heritage – and by that we mean, native – breeds of fruits and vegetables, is contingent on local supply chains in tune with the seasons. Richard Smith, Head of Fruit and Vegetables here at idc explained the pressure on many farmers to consistently grow only a few varieties with little room to experiment: “Supermarkets work on very small margins but high volume; they’re not necessarily going to get the best produce. Whereas the regional wholesalers, the suppliers that we work with, who are our customers – they will, that’s what stands them apart. They won’t order as much, but they’ll pay a little bit more for better quality.”

“I love the model which idc has, whereby you have national groups of 50, 60, 70, up to 200, 300 sites across the country, in order for national accounts to access regional supply without worrying or dealing with 40, 60 suppliers.” Fewer food miles, a farm-to-table ethos and moving away from uniform aesthetics of fruits and vegetables can ensure farmers are able to focus on what matters: flavour. As Mat Tilley, Sales Account Manager at our supplier, Worcester Produce puts it: “Providence is key”.

The reality of feeding the nation on a large-scale means adding nuance to the narrative that the lack of variety in fruit and vegetable breeds can only be framed through the lens of agricultural loss and nostalgia. The ability of farmers and gardeners to cross, graft and hybridise the strongest, tastiest crops across the centuries has led us in the UK, to some of the most delicious staples in our diets and these same practices will surely sustain us for centuries to come.

“They are not idols; they are foods that have an identity, because of people. It’s the people who give the food their identity—not the people who get an identity, because they eat prestige foods.”
Michael Twitty, Food historian