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In 1998 Glenn Roberts, a Charleston-based historic restoration consultant and thirty-year veteran of restaurant and hotel concept design, took his career in an entirely new direction.  He founded a company,[…]

If you’re talking about small farming for a local community, “land-raised plants are far superior, period.” On a global scale, it’s a trickier call.

Question: What does the term “heirloom” mean when applied to rncrops?

Glenn Roberts: “Heirloom” is an interesting rnconcept and only in the country of India have they bothered to delineatern the real definitions by law.  An American parlance here in the North rnAmerican continent, we generally assume the term “heirloom” to mean any rnplant, or possibly animal, that was in production and broadly popular rnprior to 50 years ago.  In 2010, that means 1960.  That would include rnparts of the green revolution and hybrids now. So there’s some rncontroversy surrounding the word “heirloom.”  Good, bad, indifferent, rnit's probably above my pay grade.  We prefer to use the word rn“land-raised” to delineate the fact that older seeds, plants, animals rnare developed on a farm over ages, not just lately with the interventionrn of modern science.

What is the term for rncrops bred with scientific intervention?

Glenn Roberts: Well,rn we generally use the word around the globe, “Green Revolution,” but thern advent of industrialization coincided around the world at different rntimes, but certainly between, say the late 1700’s and the late 1800’s, rnin that century you saw tremendous industrial development everywhere, rnand it seems to be matched hand-in-hand with scientific advances, and rnit’s not to qualify whether it’s good or bad, but the scientific rnadvances in seedsmanship, in my field, where you are dealing with rngrains, where a scientist is actually “improving,” and I put that in rnquotes, what had heretofore been only land-raised plants.

Are scientifically “improved” crops superior to the land-raised rnkind?

rnGlenn Roberts: I think—and I think that I can repeat what rngeneticists that are associated with breeding and addressing famine and rnaddressing plant disease worldwide, in their later years seem to drift rninto where, I believe, the answer to your question lives.  And it’s a rntough question.  So, the immediate answer is I think land-raised plants rnare vital and critical to our future.  Does that make them better?  I’m rnnot so sure the quality assessment’s important, certainly my work with rnthem, I like the foods associated with land-raised plants and animals atrn this point in history better than I like what we’ve been doing with thern green revolution and modern scientific breeding.  That’s a personal rnopinion. 

On a scientific and worldwide judgment, I think that rnyou have to take application into the answer.  If you’re talking about rnsmall farming for a local community and small scale distribution—which rnmeans radiuses of less than say, 20 miles—there’s no question that rnland-raised plants are far superior, period; and animals too.  Better rnflavor, better nutrition, all this.  Not documented in America, but somern work in EU and certainly in UNESCO fields, certainly in Asia there’s rnbeen a lot of work on this.  But when you speak about commodities and rnhaving to "feed the world" and address famine and global climate change,rn if you lump all those things in, then the definition of the vigorous rnand vital nature of land-raised plants becomes pretty arcane immediatelyrn because those plants, the land-raised plants, are the building blocks rnfor modern foods, period.  You can’t improve “modern foods” without the rngenetics of the original land-raised plants, which were in the public rndomain through history until relatively recently.  Now that’s more rnprivatized, it’s more the domain of large corporations who are engaged rnin these massive economies. 

So, when you ask, are they better? rn It brings this cascade of large concept into such a humble thing as a rnhuman improved plant system.  So, my answer is, on a small scale, rnthere’s no question “land-raised” plants are superior.  On a large rnscale, I think the verdict’s out. 

Why are land-raised crops more expensive?

rnGlenn Roberts: In the short-term, land-raised systems in general,rn both plants and animals—so when you say land-raised animals, just make rnsure we have that clear that heritage breeds is the current term we use rnin America... When you think of that entire system of land-raised plantsrn and animals, it’s far more expensive to start doing it since, in our rnsphere in North America, most of the land-raised farming has been gone rnfor at least a century, and some of it’s been gone for almost two rncenturies.  And in my field, practically, it’s definitely been gone for rnmore than a century. 

There are pockets of places, like in the rnwheat industry, where some land-raised plants survive in the commoditiesrn production system.  Kansas is a good example where Turkey Wheat rnsurvives.  Canada is even a better example where Red Fife Wheat, which rnboth of these wheats—Turkey and Red Fife Wheats are both land-raised rnwheats—they’re in high production, not low production, and they are partrn of the commodities industry.  They’re still more expensive and in rngeneral, I think to begin farming land-raised plants, the way they’re rnsupposed to be farmed, which means low fertility, low hydration rnrequirements; they don’t require a lot of water, and in fact, some of rnthem don’t want it, a high tolerance for pest and disease stress, a rnreally high tolerance for climatic stress.  That’s how they survived rnover a millennia to become foods that we have in modern times. 

Whenrn you look at those, to begin using them is relatively inexpensive, whichrn is why our NGO systems look at land-raised plants when they’re thinkingrn about third world agriculture because it takes nothing to get it rngrown. 

rnConversely, to apply those same land-raised systems to virgin ground rnwhere there hasn’t been a culture for land-raised systems, is very rnexpensive.  You can’t go to a seed company and buy reasonably priced rnseed.  You can’t find it anywhere.  You can get 100 grams in a grain rnbank somewhere if you’re lucky and you understand science because all rnthose sources use numbers and Latin, so you have to be familiar on a rnscientific basis with how botany and taxonomy and morphology works.  Andrn that’s very difficult for a lay person to jump that little hurdle.  Andrn then the next problem would be: what exactly are the methods that rnmaintain crops in a land-raised system over the long-term?  So, once I rnsay they’re very expensive in the short term because you have to be yourrn own seed company, your own farmer, and then your own processor because arn lot of these things aren’t suitable to modern processing.  Neither are rnthey suitable to modern distribution. 

Once you cover those rnproblems, or challenges, and you actually get past them, the expense of rnthe system starts moving down.  And in the long term, having native rnfertility, which means you’re bring nothing onto a farm, having your ownrn seed production, which means you’re not having to buy seed, and having rnyour processing distribution being right in your immediate area, cuts rnall of these costs and they become far less expensive in the long term. rnBut in the modern age, I’d say since 1970, when interest in this really rnbegan, there are some good examples, but they’re pretty sparse so far.  rnIt’s coming, and it’s coming at exponential speeds.  The development is rnreally gratifying to see, as I said here, I couldn’t have probably have rndiscussed this two years ago with any credibility.  And it’s great to rnsee it happening.

Recorded on April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Priya George