Should we buy into heritage vegetables?

This post is by BSUFN member Abigail Wincott.

heritage toms wp 1At this time of year supermarkets and garden centres start vying for consumers’ attention with trays of flowers and vegetable plants, and increasingly among these are ‘heritage’ ranges.

Indeed from requests for donations to plant conservation charities to the lifestyle sections of newspaper to serried ranks of heritage tomato plants, demands on consumers to buy into the protection of this peculiar new kind of heritage come from many directions.

Rarely are these claims questioned – naturally not by those selling ‘heritage’ seeds and produce – but also not by journalists, who tend to reproduce claims about the value of ‘heritage’ and the work to conserve it, made by conservation bodies, chefs or seed sellers.

In many ways the term ‘heritage’ seems a rather pompous one to apply to food. It more commonly applies to castles and cathedrals, solid evidence of human civilisation, handed on through the generations, and preserved for the good of humanity. What on earth can ‘heritage’ mean when applied to vegetables and seeds, which rot or are eaten or otherwise transformed, and surely seem pretty ephemeral, not to mention trivial?

And as consumers, should we buy into these claims – implicit or explicit – that we can shop to save ‘heritage’ – whatever it is?

Well, maybe yes. Actually.

For the past few years I’ve been collecting and analysing a database of texts about heritage vegetables, seeds and fruit trees, looking at the way the narrative of ‘heritage’ is created. The range of people involved is phenomenal – from the UN to Reclaim the Fields, via Waitrose, which would make a fairly bizarre shopping trip.

One thing stands out across the database, though, which is that the process of heritage is driven a sense of loss and ongoing risk to that which we inherit from the past. Social justice NGO Practical Action warns that ‘More than 90% of crop varieties have been lost from farmers’ fields in the past century’ and it dubs this a ‘haemorrhage’ of biodiversity. A National Trust webpage about lost apples says they had ‘all but vanished by the late 1970s’ though luckily, the Trust retains those grown from twigs snatched from a bonfire.

These tales of loss lead logically to the idea that something must be done to protect what’s left. Indeed the concept of loss produces a key component in the process of heritage – the guardian or trustee.

The National Trust puts itself forward as a guardian of plant heritage through its network of historic kitchen gardens. So do the John Innes Centre, the Heritage Seed Library and many, many more.

beetrA burgeoning movement

But the place you might more commonly come across this idea of ‘heritage’ vegetables, as a middle-class British consumer in particular, is the lifestyle section of the broadsheets and the heritage produce labels in supermarkets’ luxury ranges and the menus of the posher sort of pub.

Here the idea of loss is very muted. Rather than the sense we’re driving off the end of a biodiversity cliff, the consumerist story of heritage vegetables is that of a burgeoning ‘heritage vegetable movement’, powered by dissatisfied consumers, who ‘expect more’  and are forming a ‘back-to-the-roots revolution‘.

As a result, the loss is relegated to some vague recent past in lifestyle texts. The present is a time of revival, renewal and growth, where ‘the outlook for heritage varieties has changed’ as they have ‘moved out of the history books and back into vegetable patches, gardens and orchards’.

To me this is a striking difference. It might seem self-evident that consumer-oriented writing would stress the feel good factor, while charities and not-for-profits would emphasise tragedy. But both make their living, if you like, from ‘heritage’, whether that be through justifying public funding, appealing for donations, selling produce or selling advertising space and the consumers to look at it. If feel-good narratives are more appealing, then why would all interest groups not employ the burgeoning movement narrative?

donate box on Crop Trust website

Global Crop Diversity Trust website

One very good reason is that the feel-bad narrative suggests the need for official institutions of some kind to step in and ‘do something’. These are the very groups who reproduce that catastrophising version of the heritage story. That narrative also very effectively constructs ephemeral materials like vegetables, and abstract concepts like diversity or taste, as materials, at immediate risk of destruction. As such, their safekeeping in walled gardens or seed vaults seems very appropriate.

But seeds and vegetables are not like castles and cathedrals. Even when they’re ‘rare’ there are likely to be hundreds of them. They can be reproduced, often with little expertise. You can keep them in an old jar in your shed. As you may well do. And perhaps this is why this form of heritage is not uniquely identified as a properly expert domain, but remains a lively and contested field (forgive the pun).

Which is a good thing. Even those who work in the ‘expert’ conservation sector are aware of the limited effectiveness of trying to protect diversity by storing a very small number of samples in a box somewhere, and there is some recognition that home gardens represent important vestiges of diversity. But gardens and allotments are absolutely outside the sphere of influence of these groups, and inaccessible to the professional crop breeding sector.

While the lifestyle and ‘posh’ retail uses for ‘heritage’ entail their own problems, they nonetheless promote the idea of a broad-based movement to IMG_1174 (1)revive, rather than refrigerate, diverse food crops. And so, if it takes your fancy, by all means try a heritage tomato plant or heritage beetroot salad. And if they’re beyond your budget, you may be able to grow your own. Seed swaps take place in community centres around the country, and online. And it is just possible in this case your consumption will, aspart of a wider movement, help conserve this peculiarly ephemeral kind of heritage.


You can read more detail about the research which is published as Wincott, A. (2015) Heritage in danger or mission accomplished? Diverging accounts of endangerment, conservation and ‘heritage’ vegetables in print and online. Food, Culture and Society 18 (4). A limited number of free views are available by clicking

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