OVER THE LAST three decades, more than one-hundred thousand plant and animal varieties and species have become endangered around the planet, many of which formerly provided humankind with food or beverages. At the same time, a remarkable counter trend has occurred in America’s gardens and orchards, and on its farms and ranch pastures.
Although virtually unnoticed in some circles, more than fifteen thousand unique vegetable, fruit, legume and grain varieties and dozens of livestock and poultry breeds have returned to U.S. foodscapes, farmers markets, restaurants and home tables over the last quarter century. It has often been repeated that just a hundred or so species of crops and livestock moving through globalized food supply chains provide most of humankind with the bulk of its calories that move through globalized commerce today. In contrast, this survey documents that at least six hundred and forty species are now on the plates of Americans participating in alternative food networks, not counting the many North American edible species of fish, game, shellfish and wild plants.
Curiously, most of these six hundred forty species had been pushed out of the marketplace over the previous century as industrialized agriculture and national grocery store chains consciously or unconsciously reduced the food biodiversity available to nourish our families, friends and communities. And yet, after suffering at least a half century of endangerment, some foods like the range-fed lamb grown by Diné and Hispanic herders of flocks of Navajo-Churro sheep are once again gracing the tables of restaurants every day of the year.
To be sure, no single individual or organization is responsible for such culinary comebacks; it has taken a village of collaborators. And yet, it is fair to say that the innovative farmers, ranchers, chefs, co-ops, distributors and collectives engaged with this food diversity have been supported more by a dozen national non-profits and regional grassroots alliances than by government agencies, national conservation organizations or universities. America’s repertoire of meats, fruits, grains, vegetables, spices and beverages have been re-diversified, one foodshed at a time.
In particular, the market recovery of what are popularly known as heritage foods—including heirloom vegetables, grains and fruit trees as well as historic breeds of livestock and flocks of so-called poultry antiquities— has been nothing short of miraculous. As you will see documented over the following pages, varieties and breeds thought to be close to extinction a half century ago are once again being grown by thousands of small scale farmers, and are back on the tables of fine restaurants, brew pubs and home kitchens in every state in the union.