As their name suggests, heritage foods have been around forever, but the trend to preserve them is fairly new. As some of the oldest breeds of fruits, vegetables, cattle, pigs, poultry, and many others make their way onto endangered species list, there is no time like the present to protect them.
Heritage breeds consist of both animals and plants. In both cases, newer cross-breeds were created for more efficient food production. Very rarely would you find heritage breeds in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) because they can't gain weight as fast as newer cross-breeds. As you might expect, genetically modified tomatoes, artificially inseminated cows, or poultry modified to reach growth potential faster than natural are NOT heritage breeds. Farmers raising heritage breeds adhere to more organic farming methods- not because it's trendy, but because this is what the heritage breeds require. They're allowed to graze in pastures and feed naturally, grow on their own clock, and mate as nature intended. They're not treated with growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. The catch, of course, is that this is also what makes them more expensive.
Heritage breeds are important for many reasons and are often overlooked for their ability to offer biodiversity and sustainability. They have played and will continue to play an important role in preserving the food supply with their self-sufficiency and survival skills, such as their natural resistance to disease. Unlike their commercialized counterparts, old school breeds have been around long enough to sustain drastic changes to the environment and will continue to do so as long as they are around. Heritage breeds are not only resilient, but preserve a piece of history as well. They represent varieties and flavors unique to different regions.
As with other food sustainability efforts, you can support heritage breeds through community supported agriculture, farmer's markets, and even restaurants that choose to buy local.
Visit the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website at http://albc-usa.org/. Here you can find lists of livestock and poultry heritage breeds, including those that are endangered. This non-profit organization works to protect more than 150 different breeds of poultry and livestock. According to ALBC, "These traditional breeds are an essential part of the American agricultural inheritance. Not only do they evoke our past, they are also an important resource for our future."
Check out these websites for more information:
heritagefoodsusa.com: "Heritage Foods USA exists to promote genetic diversity, small family farms, and a fully traceable food supply."
Seed Savers Exchange- a non-profit organization dedicated to "saving and sharing heirloom seeds"
US Ark of Taste: a Slow Food USA program with "a catalog of over 200 delicious foods in danger of extinction"
Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD is a nutritionist and founder of www.Skinnyandthecity.com. She is also the creator of The F-Factor DietaC/, an innovative nutritional program she has used for more than ten years to provide hundreds of her clients with all the tools they need to achieve easy weight loss and maintenance, improved health and well-being. For more information log onto www.FFactorDiet.com.