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Eat It or Lose It, Says Champion of Heirloom Foods


Eat it to save it.  It may seem counterintuitive to eat species hovering on the cusp of extinction, and frankly, no one wants you to put a polar bear in the slow cooker.

But “food-ethics consciousness”  — the concept of rescuing traditional foods from obscurity by creating a market for them — is the new thing,  now that more consumers have resolved the paper versus plastic issue with canvas bags, embraced organics and focused on “buying local” to reduce carbon footprints.

Fewer than 30 plants now provide 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, a fact that places thousands of heritage food species at risk of extinction, says Gary Nabhan, a Tucson ethnobotanist and author whose book Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods, Chelsea Green Publishing (May 2008) is the new bible for what is known as “eater-based conservation.” Nabhan recently accepted a tenured professorship as a research social scientist  at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona, his alma mater.

No longer is the Carolina northern flying squirrel a standard ingredient in regional fire-thickened stews. American chestnuts have been devastated, and good luck finding stands of paw-paw patches, a wild fruit often likened to mangoes or pears.

So Nabhan and collaborating partners from seven conservation groups spent four years devising an inventory of nearly 1,100 food species unique to 13 food regions in North America that are threatened, endangered or, in some cases, gone from our marketplaces.

Seed banks or some breeding programs can preserve some so they are not lost forever. But the only surefire way to save these foods, Nabhan says, is to make sure they ultimately end up on our forks.

Food regions are missing important commercial opportunities, Nabhan says.

“Tourists come to Arizona for the natural and cultural heritage,” he adds. “We should link our sense of place to our sense of taste.”

Unlike some environmental messages that come with a heaping side dish of sacrifice and guilt, this one is all about pleasure.

“We want people to really experiment and enjoy the flavors and colors and fragrances and textures of these foods from our regions,” Nabhan said.

Another ethnobotonist, Martha Burgess, started learning about traditional desert foods after coming to the University of Arizona for graduate school in 1967.

She now sells at local farmers’ markets 14 heirloom beans native to the region and once used not only by American Indians, but also to Hispanic and Anglo pioneer families.

Society has become disconnected from traditional foods, Burgess said. “Human nature is to do what’s easiest. You’re going to buy what’s available, so you’ll go for the pizza and corn dog rather than grow tepary beans,” she said. Tepary is a desert-tolerant bean of the Southwest.

But she’s seeing interest pick up considerably as prices for gas push up food prices and interest in living “green” grows.

“The cost of fuel and the whole movement toward buying locally is going to make it easier to create markets for some of these foods,” Burgess said.

Tucson falls squarely in what has been coined the “Chile Pepper Nation” in Nabhan’s book, and is in a region with 174 threatened traditional foods.

When Nabhan did a recent interview on National Public Radio about his book, some pragmatists suggested there are good reasons these crops or animal breeds have been trumped by more commercially viable ones.

Some are persnickety — either they are not as shippable or durable or uniform, it was suggested. Maybe some animals take longer to get to breeding age or lay fewer or smaller eggs.

Dennis Moroney, who runs the 47 Ranch 12 miles north of Bisbee, said he has not found any problems with the Navajo-Churro sheep that he has raised the last three years and sold for meat at Food Conspiracy Cooperative Grocery and local farmers’ markets.

He says the sheep have adapted to the desert over 400 years, so they are very hardy and virtually parasite-free. As a bonus, their wool is very good for weaving

“I think there are lots of people really tuned into the idea of eating locally and trying out native foods,” Mooney said.

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