Nazis, celebrity chefs and radishes: why heirloom food could stop famine and make fortunes

When’s the last time you saw more than one variety of radish at the supermarket? The number of radish varieties in the world has shrunk from 463 to just 27 in 80 years. And it’s not just the radish gene pool that’s slowly shrinking – fruit, vegetables, even animals are becoming less diverse. But why should we care?

Fear of global food shortages

According to a recent National Geographic article by Charles Siebert biodiversity is important for two reasons:

  • it has the potential to increase yield and
  • to reduce the risk of crops being wiped out by disease.

State-owned companies in China and the Middle East have been buying up swathes of land in Australia to safeguard their future food supply so the threat of worldwide food shortages is already becoming an issue for Australians. And Siebert says 90% of the world’s wheat is currently susceptible to a strain of stem rust fungus known as Ug99. According to Siebert stem rust is the same fungus that wiped out the potatoes in Ireland and led to the potato famine that killed and displaced millions, due to Ireland’s over reliance on one food source.

The positives of biodiversity

Of course in the developed world there’s a third reason why biodiversity is important. It tastes better. Known as heirloom varieties, many local gardeners are growing heirloom plants and storing their seeds in seed banks to look after obscure varieties. It’s also a way of preserving the family history with some gardeners keeping seeds which have been passed down from migrant ancestors.

The history of seeds and seed banks can often be fascinating. According to Siebert the story of the first seed bank plays out like a Spielberg movie. The Russian creator scoured the world for seeds before dying of starvation in a Stalin prison camp. At the same time Hitler planned an attack on the seed bank but a band of supporters whisked a selection of seeds to safety, several dying of starvation while protecting the food source of future generations.

A cash cow for the future

It’s no wonder that heirloom food is capturing the imagination of cashed-up foodies. It works on similar themes as the local food movement. London chef Oliver Rowe recently had a successful restaurant (and TV series of course) sourcing all the ingredients for his menu within access of the London Underground.

Yet a Google search on cafes specialising in heirloom ingredients came up with zero results worldwide. It’s a great idea for our next set of Carrotmob businesses. If I was wanting to open a café I’d be keeping my mouth shut and writing a business plan. Given the appetite for sustainable food with a story at the moment, setting up an heirloom café sounds like a winner to me.


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