Skip to main content

Bring heritage breeds to holiday table

By Peggy F. Barlett, Special to CNN
updated 9:27 AM EST, Thu November 22, 2012
Narragansett heritage turkeys who make up a breeding flock are seen at Springfield Farm last week in Sparks, Maryland.
Narragansett heritage turkeys who make up a breeding flock are seen at Springfield Farm last week in Sparks, Maryland.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peggy Barlett: Early Thanksgiving dinner drew raves for tasty heritage turkey served
  • She says a sustainable food system needs diversity, preservation of old varieties
  • She says new weather patterns will stress crops; old varieties provide growing options
  • Barlett: Majority of food plant varieties are lost; help save the rest by providing demand

Editor's note: Peggy F. Barlett is Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed project. She is former president of the Society for Economic Anthropology and Chair of the Emory University Sustainable Food Committee.

(CNN) -- Last week, I sat down with colleagues and students to an early Thanksgiving meal prepared by my university's cafeteria. Along with our winter greens, butternut squash, brussels sprouts with apples and bacon, and pumpkin grits, we ate a roasted "heritage breed turkey."

Accolades ensued: "To me, all turkeys taste the same—except for this one—I can tell the difference," said William Payne who works in the medical school. The local greens from Georgia farms were "really, really tasty," said a first-year student from the Atlanta area and her friend from Tianjin, China.

Peggy Barlett
Peggy Barlett

The meal was Emory University's fourth Heritage Harvest Feast. The turkey that had everybody talking was a Narragansett, a heritage breed native to Rhode Island. Along with Bourbon Reds, Narragansetts have been saved from extinction by farms like the Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas, where Emory's turkey's come from, and by the efforts of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving rare breeds of livestock.

The Heritage Harvest Feast is not only an occasion for thanks and a good meal, but it also is part of a commitment to building a more sustainable food system. Sustainability depends on variety. To preserve variety, we need to grow it and want to eat it!

Thanksgiving advice, recipes, solidarity and sanity

Genetic variety in our food system is the result of thousands of years of farmer and consumer choices, in itself a precious human heritage. Adapted to local climates and all kinds of diseases and pests, the seeds and breeds that have survived until the present day are often hardier, more resilient—and can be more nutritious as well.

As our planet warms and growing seasons shift, new patterns of flood, drought, frost and pests will stress our food system. When farmers plant large tracts of one variety--perhaps one that is bred to grow faster, is suited to mechanical harvest and travels well--or consumers demand only one breed of animal, our food supply is vulnerable. In the 1970s, for example, a disease wiped out more than 50% of the corn crop in some states, because those areas were planted to one single corn variety.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Crop uniformity is the enemy of resilience. The hardy traits of older, heirloom varieties provide a safety valve. They allow us to breed new, more resilient crops using traits we don't even know we need until disaster strikes.

But can we count on those genetic riches surviving today? Around the world, the loss of species to extinction is progressing faster than ever. And this loss includes our seed varieties.

Studies using USDA crop lists from 1903 estimate that only 6-7% of the nation's named commercial varieties remained available by the 1980s. We lost, for example, 86% of our apple varieties and 92% of our lima beans.

Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney in "Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity" report that 93% of our lettuce varieties, 81% of our tomatoes, 93% of our carrots and 91% of watermelon varieties are extinct. To be sure, commercial seed catalogs now list many new hybrid crop varieties. But these hybrid seeds do not contain the range of genetic variability of the older, open-pollinated seeds (that is, plants pollinated by birds, insects or wind that "breed true") that reflect centuries of selection. This is a staggering loss of our precious genetic heritage.

Shopping on Thanksgiving Day?
Food myths at Thanksgiving
Bringing Thanksgiving to Sandy victims

The best guarantee of a safe food supply as we head toward an uncertain global future is a large number of diverse food producers growing a wide variety of healthy seeds and breeds. But to save this rich biodiversity—of potatoes or turkeys—there needs to be a market. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of the importance of heirloom varieties, and local farmers markets and even some grocery stores feature multiple varieties. Savoring distinct flavors in special types of vegetables, fruits and meats encourages us to recognize, enjoy and support farmers who are preserving variety.

iReport: Who's at your Thanksgiving table?

That's why Cora and her husband, Simon, (who came from the chemistry department to our early Thanksgiving dinner) grow a garden with heirloom vegetable varieties. And they order a heritage breed turkey for Thanksgiving even though it costs more. They are willing to spend extra money because, says Cora, "it's tastier, and we'd rather eat meat less often and not get mass-produced and flavorless turkey."

So, as you plan your feasts this holiday season, can you add an heirloom vegetable? Try a local specialty? Seek out a heritage breed? Our food future may depend on it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy F. Barlett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT