You’re probably just as guilty as anyone: You go to the grocery store, pick over the tomato bin, and fill your bag with the best-looking specimens you can find. That’s great news for tonight’s salad—but bad news for the rest of us.
The problem comes when you take this entirely understandable consumer habit of picking the best-looking produce and add it to a far-flung, industrialized food system. The result is that farmers and consumers are united in their desire for a tomato that produces uniform fruit that ripens slowly, can survive weeks on a truck, and still looks lovely on a grocery shelf.
Flavor? Forget it. And even worse, the genetic diversity of our foods is plummeting. Ever heard of the Irish potato famine? That’s one example of the inevitable outcome of reduced genetic diversity in our food.
But a growing number of folks—including chefs, scientists, and consumers—are concerned about this loss of variety and biodiversity. They are banding together to create new (and old) plant breeds that buck the trend. And the work is as delicious as it is vital.
One such organization is the Culinary Breeding Network, based in the Pacific Northwest. Founder Lane Selman describes it as a force for connection. On the one hand are top chefs and other gustatory professionals; on the other are the largely invisible scientists charged with the duty of creating new breeds of (especially organic) produce, as well as the farmers who grow their creations.
The scientists work in public and private institutions, where they select varieties of produce that demonstrate some desirable trait—say, a tasty flavor or a well-textured flesh—and develop that trait in a new variety that is stable from one crop to the next.
The Culinary Breeding Network introduces these folks to the men and women who actually use their creations every day in the kitchen. One key program is its annual event, the Variety Showcase, which pairs breeders and chefs in collaboration on a tasting menu—not only to show off new varietals, but to foster collaboration between the two groups. (Organic Valley is a co-sponsor.)
One example of that collaboration is between the Portland, Oregon, restaurant Ava Gene and the nearby Ayers Creek Farm. Joshua McFadden, the former farmer who serves as executive chef, wants a tastier winter melon to serve at the restaurant. In service of this goal, he and his staff set aside seeds from especially delicious melons to send back to the farm for next season’s crop.
It’s a slow process—but one that has the potential to radically improve our food for the long haul, McFadden recently told The Atlantic magazine. “I want flavorful food,” McFadden explained. “There’s nothing more important than flavor. If you’re breeding for flavor, a lot of the crops that were lost due to scalability and industrialization will come back.”