How Do We Preserve the Vanishing Foods of the Earth?

Apples, Blue Honeysuckles, and the Soviet Seed Collector Who Protected the Earth's Biodiversity

I finally started to feel like myself again. Newly up and about, I returned to the Granville Island Public Market, eager to enjoy the best of both the regional and global food systems. There was still fresh local fruit, including the last of the berries. There were blackberries and the first apples of the fall. I could buy, if I wished, dozens of types of lettuce and a wide range of greens unknown in North America even 30 years ago. I could pick up gai lan, a Chinese broccoli cultivar, or rue, an herb as old as the Romans, with delicate leaves and a strong almost soapy scent. There was fresh shiso, a tender Japanese mint that tastes wonderful in lemonade.

It wasn’t always so. I still recall the wonder of first trying romaine lettuce. My parents took me to a “cutting edge” restaurant and the waiter made Caesar salad tableside. He took the big wooden bowl and rubbed it with a garlic clove, and then mixed a dressing artfully. I remember him cracking a raw egg into the mixture and finishing the tossed dish with Romano cheese and anchovies. That was pretty exotic stuff for western Canada in 1980.

I moved through the market, dodging the visual arts students snapping photos of the food. I found a few “pink lemonade” lemons, which have naturally pink flesh. I grabbed them, along with the shiso, to slice up and make into a lemonade later. A pie in mind, I also bought some Meyer lemons. A hybrid cross of the citron and a mandarin/pomelo cultivar, the Meyer is sweet and lush with a distinctive mild citrus flavor and slightly orange flesh. They were introduced to the United States in 1908 by Frank Meyer (we will come back to him). The Meyer was made popular by chef Alice Waters in the 1970s and further promoted by Martha Stewart a few decades later. How did Meyer find a new lemon? Where, ultimately, do new fruits come from? That question leads us straight back to the Mountains of Heaven, the
Tian Shan. Except this time, we will focus on Malus pumila : the apple.

As the world’s biodiversity declines, we lose the ability to both repair existing crops and create new ones.

Imagine a treasure hunt. The earth is covered in interesting plants and animals, and some are unbelievably useful. New foods and new medicines wait somewhere over the horizon, still to be discovered. Other wild plants we know well. They are the ancestors of our current crops, and we turn to these wild relations when we need to breed a new cultivar to resist a disease or pest. I called this wealth of biodiversity a library in the previous chapter, and for a good reason; it has much to teach us even now.

As the world’s biodiversity declines, we lose the ability to both repair existing crops and create new ones. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how bad a problem this is, as biodiversity is spread unevenly across the globe. For example, alpine zones (these zones are found above the tree line and below the snow line) cover about three percent of the earth’s land surface but are home to an unusual number of species. Half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are on mountains. Of the twenty plant species that supply eighty percent of the world’s food, seven originate from the mountain regions.

We can’t be sure how much of this primary diversity we are losing because of this uneven distribution. However, we do know that the earth has lost ten percent of its tropical forest, another hotspot for biodiversity, in the last twenty-five years alone. And climate change is pushing species into new ranges, ever farther from the equator, as plants migrate to keep up with their preferred climatic conditions.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when a great deal more of the earth’s primary forest still stood, Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov traveled the world to better understand why some areas of the earth are so lush with diversity. Born into a merchant family in Moscow, he grew up listening to his father’s stories of life in a poor rural village where crop failures and rationing were common. Vavilov remembered these lessons. Driven to improve the security of the world’s crops, he attended the Moscow Agricultural Institute and began an adventurous series of world travels to map the planet’s food crops. As his career advanced, he took a post in Leningrad where he led the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. He worked to improve wheat and corn crops and pioneered the identification of wild ancestors of crops in order to combine their genes with domesticated relatives, tracing crops to a small number of special areas.

Vavilov realized that some areas of the planet, particularly mountainous areas, contained a vast diversity of niches, little bio-regions sometimes no larger than a valley or cliff face. Evolution ensured that plants and animals would adapt to each of these niches, making certain a wondrous diversity would thrive. In his honor, we sometimes call the most biodiverse regions of the globe Vavilov Zones. On each trip abroad, he collected seeds from a new region of the globe, creating the largest collection of plant genetic material ever assembled. Vavilov’s success rested on his ability to take a team of researchers into remote regions and quickly and thoroughly gather material in adverse conditions. He lived by his favorite motto: “Life is short: we must hurry.”

In 1929, Vavilov centered his efforts on the apple. Today, apples are the third most popular fruit on earth, behind the mango and the banana, and they play an important symbolic role in almost every culture and religion. Yet until Vavilov strolled into what is now Almaty, Kazakhstan, near the foothills of the Tian Shan, the apple’s origin was lost. The town’s name translates as “where the apples are,” and even today on the nearby foothills of the Mountains of Heaven, thickets of apple trees hang heavily with wild fruit. Vavilov recognized the region as the birthplace of the apple, adding that knowledge to his growing understanding of where the world’s crops each originated. Vavilov found wondrous apple trees a hundred feet tall, and dwarf ones standing waist high. Some of the apples were as big as cantaloupes, others no bigger than cherries. Many were inedible, but some were absolute wonders. Several tasted of anise, a flavor I’ve yet to encounter in a commercial apple.

All of these apples are offspring of Malus sieversii, the parent tree of the apple. Like pears, each apple seed grows an entirely new cultivar. Vavilov traced the modern apple to a sprawling tangle of forest, and in that tangle he documented the ancestors of 150 other food crops.

You might recall I suggested that the Tian Shan could be the source of the Eden story. This is because no other region has spawned so many major crops. Ultimately, Vavilov described 12 such centers of biodiversity, tracing our food crops to these key areas. There is one in South Asia. There is one in Ethiopia, one in the spine of South America and one in India. The wild ancestors in these zones gave us our most important crops, and most of these regions, including the Tian Shan, are threatened today. The Soviets cut up to 80 percent of the wild fruit forests down for wood, and though the losses have slowed in recent times, they still continue as the region develops. The last of the wild forests are now preserved in Ile-Alatau National Park, a place I would dearly love to visit so that I might eat an apple that tastes of anise. These forests in eastern Kazakhstan are so important that the USDA has collected over 100,000 seeds from the region.

Vavilov’s personal story is a sad one. He placed science before politics and managed to get into a fight over pea genetics, a rather unlikely crime. Vavilov believed the understanding of genetic trait inheritance developed by Austrian scientist and monk Gregor Mendel was largely correct. However, a former student of Vavilov, Trofim Lysenko, believed that a contrary theory proposed by Soviet scientists was correct. Lysenko became a favorite of Josef Stalin, and Vavilov’s denunciation of Lysenko led to his arrest while he was on an expedition in Ukraine. He was sent to Siberia, where he died of starvation in a gulag at the age of 55. Life is short: we must hurry.

Western crops are brought into functioning agricultural systems to save farmers, and the result is more pesticides, more fertilizers, new diseases and soil damage.

Vavilov’s story doesn’t end there, however. While he was in Serbia, his great seed collection remained in Leningrad a city under German siege for 28 months during the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War). The Soviets had, in a fit of short-sightedness, evacuated the art from the Hermitage but not the quarter million samples of food crop diversity, which were arguably a much more valuable treasure. Vavilov’s old team of scientists understood the importance of the collection and moved them to the basement for protection from the hungry population. Standing guard over a giant buffet of plant matter, nine of the scientists died of starvation before the siege was ended. The seeds lived on, and Vavilov was publicly rehabilitated during the Soviet Union’s period of “de-Stalinization.” He is now hailed as a hero of Soviet science and lauded by scientists worldwide. Lysenko retained his post after the death of Stalin, but he was widely denounced and largely forgotten in his old age. The refusal of Lysenko and his comrades to accept Mendel’s theories contributed to decades of crop shortfalls in the Soviet Union.

I wanted to meet a living, breathing fruit hunter. I sat down with Tom Baumann at Krause Berry Farm, an hour’s drive southeast from Vancouver and a suitable venue for the fruit-obsessed. The U-Pick fields were finished for the season, but the corn stand bustled with smiling people in city shoes towing packs of sunburnt children. Customers lined up for the waffle bar and sampled local wines in the replica old-time western saloon. People stocked up on frozen berries and related products. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries. And in the Porch Restaurant, people enjoyed the house specialty: an extraordinarily tall strawberry pie. The pie’s crust holds a thick layer of custard and is topped with a mountain of strawberries held in place with a jelly-like glaze. The whole affair is topped with clouds of whipped cream. The staff take a special training session on how to cut the pie without breaking it. I watched my slice jiggle tantalizingly on my plate. Across from me (and my pie), Tom sipped his coffee.

Tom Baumann wears several hats: professor, agricultural expert and farmer. However, he is also a fruit hunter, working on the front lines of culinary exploration. Tom holds master’s degrees from German and Canadian universities and is always good for a culinary wonder. He grows miracle berries (Synsepalum dulcificum) for his students, an African fruit that chemically alters the function of our taste buds for a short time so that one’s brain registers sour tastes as sweet. The last time I wandered past his greenhouses, they were full of papaya. He loves exotic and tropical fruits, and he has strong opinions on fruit flavors.

Tom follows a long tradition of explorers. As early as 1500 BCE, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sent a team along South Africa’s eastern coast to find new and exciting fruit. William Dampier, a pirate turned botanist, was commissioned by King William III to hunt fruit around the world, and he published an adventure book in 1697, describing his travels in search of pirate gold and exciting snacks. Vavilov blazed his own trail around the world, and Frank Meyer of Meyer lemon fame made repeated trips into the most remote parts of China in search of the next great flavor. No stranger to the perils of plant hunting, Frank Meyer vanished from a steamer in transit between Wuhan and Nanjing in 1918. Tom conducted similar adventures. Back in suburban Canada, I settled in to hear about travel and fruit.

I mentioned to Tom that I was writing about lost cultivars. He winced and started in on a familiar problem: the loss of landraces.

“The loss is painful. So many cultivars lost. It makes me sick,” Tom said.

“Me too. I read about these lost fruit cultivars, and I wonder what they were like.”

Tom pounded the table, sending my pie wobbling. “Super-crops spread around the world with the patents held by big companies. Western crops are brought into functioning agricultural systems to ‘save’ farmers, and the result is more pesticides, more fertilizers, new diseases and soil damage. We need to go back to landraces. We are losing the key to sustainable farming.”

After agreeing wholeheartedly in between bites of pie, I asked Tom about whether he hunted for new fruits to help counter the loss of old cultivars. And how did he get interested in such an adventurous line of work in the first place? In his case, the passion was long in the making. He became interested in fruit on his great aunt’s farm in Germany, where he was picking berries by the age of five and driving the tractor by the age of seven. He toured farms with his father and continued picking berries for money while he was in university, where he wrote a master’s thesis on the mechanical harvesting of raspberries. This work brought him to the town of Abbotsford in western Canada, and he enjoyed it so much there that he convinced his whole family to move to the region. He quickly advanced in his government research and consulting work and eventually took his current position at the University of the Fraser Valley as a berry expert in the department of agriculture.

“But,” he paused, looking longingly south at the mountains, “fruit hunters always want what they can’t have locally.”

In his case, this led to a love of the tropics, where he could locate rare breeds of fruit such as strawberry papayas and exotic mangoes in all colors of the rainbow. He explored fruit markets in Hawaii, finding unusual breeds growing on small farms and in people’s yards. He is particularly enamored with the allspice and ackee fruit in Jamaica, and he makes regular trips to Florida to study citrus varieties. Tom keeps a private greenhouse of delicate tropical plants carefully protected from the Canadian winters. I listened in wonder. And I thought my apple and pear trees were a lot of work.

I ask Tom the big question: are there really a lot of fruits left out there to bring to the global market?

“Hundreds, at least. Maybe thousands. Entire species, and high-quality ones. Some are still in the jungles and forests, some you find at markets in rural villages.”

Tom sees the future of fruit emerging from several poorly cataloged regions, such as pockets of Africa, particularly West Africa; Papua New Guinea, where hundreds of fruits haven’t even been cataloged; and rural Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Many fruits of the Indian subcontinent are largely unknown in the west. He paints me a picture of new flavors, new cuisines, unknown fruit adventures. Spend time in any of these places and you might find something entirely new to Western tastes.

“You know, there is a lot here to draw upon locally as well.”

That surprised me. How could British Columbia possibly have culinary secrets to yield? Tom began with an example, describing a fruit I’d never experienced. Lonicera caerulea, the haskap or blue honeysuckle, is a large berry native to the cool temperate regions of North America, including the boreal forests of Canada. It is a deciduous shrub that grows about two meters tall, with gentle waxy pale grayish-green leaves. It has a pale dusty blue skin, the flowers are yellowish white, and the fruit is rectangular in shape and between the size of a grape and a blueberry.

The word haskap comes from the Indigenous Ainu people of northern Japan, who have enjoyed the berry for centuries. The haskap plant thrives happily in temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius, a handy trait in a country where temperatures in its northern regions can drop to forty below zero. (I experienced this level of cold once in Calgary. It was enough to encourage me to shift my research towards the equator.) They ripen even earlier than strawberries and work well in pastries, jams, juice, ice cream, yogurt and candy and are considered to be a superfood, rich in micronutrients and antioxidants. Tom has been working for more than a decade to foster a haskap industry in British Columbia, creating cultivars that thrive in the more temperate climates found around Abbotsford and that are easier to harvest than the wild plants. Taming the haskap is slow, methodical work. He thinks they have a great color and outstanding antioxidant properties, and he believes haskap could easily develop into a profitable addition to local farm fields.

Tom leaned back and promised to invite me to a haskap tasting.

“There are a lot of native plants here that might work as commercial crops. The wild space is still intact; the material is there to find.” He laments a lack of government funding for such programs. Taking a wild crop and making it bigger, more flavorful and more reliable takes years of work. “The Indigenous Peoples of these regions grew hundreds of crops using various agricultural techniques. We just didn’t see them as crops. It’s a huge loss.”

I sighed. When Europeans colonized British Columbia, they discounted local agriculture and actively prevented Indigenous people from cultivating and harvesting their local foods.

As I mop up the last of my pie, Tom leaves me with a question. With global trade, everyone wants the same crop, which limits local varieties. Yet the future of small growers is tied to interest in unusual foods. It isn’t clear which system will ultimately dominate. How can we preserve the lost foods that remain?

As he leaves, Tom muses about the Ansault pear. It might, he suggests, still be hiding out there. Pear trees live a reasonably long time under ideal conditions, and someone might have taken a cutting of an Ansault, keeping the cultivar alive. Some fruit hunters specialize in rescuing old varieties; somewhere, someone might be looking for the Ansault, and it might still be there to be found.

A few weeks later, Tom invited me to a haskap tasting. His group had turned out haskap jelly and a lovely crisp made with frozen berries topped with brown sugar and rolled oats. The haskap reminds me of the Saskatoon berry. They are juicy and both sweet and tart, with a complex flavor, a tiny bit of waxiness and a touch of astringency. Both berries are a little like blueberries, a fruit I like more and more as I get older. I’d eat haskap berries if they were more widely available. I wondered if they would navigate the hurdles to commercialization, but for the moment, I was content to have had the pleasure of experiencing a new fruit.


lost feastExcerpted from Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food by Lenore Newman. © by Lenore Newman. Published by ECW Press Ltd.  www.ecwpress.com.

Lenore Newman
Lenore Newman
Lenore Newman is the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley. She is the author of the acclaimed Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey. She divides her time between Vancouver and Roberts Creek, British Columbia.

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