Traditionally, farmers throughout the world have raised thousands of different animal breeds and plant varieties. However, since today’s industrial farms rely upon only a few specialized types of livestock and crops, thousands of non-commercial animal breeds and crop varieties have disappeared, along with the valuable genetic diversity they possessed. Fortunately, a growing number of sustainable farmers are preserving agricultural variety and protecting biodiversity by raising “heritage” or “heirloom” animal breeds and crops.
Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by farmers in the past, before the drastic reduction of breed variety caused by the rise of industrial agriculture. Within the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct. In the past five years alone, 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have become extinct. 1
In the US, a few main breeds dominate the livestock industry: 2
83 percent of dairy cows are Holsteins, and five main breeds comprise almost all of the dairy herds in the US.
Heritage animals were bred over time to develop traits that made them particularly well-adapted to local environmental conditions. Breeds used in industrial agriculture are bred to produce lots of milk or eggs, gain weight quickly, or yield particular types of meat within confined facilities. Heritage breeds are generally better adapted to withstand disease and survive in harsh environmental conditions, and their bodies can be better suited to living on pasture. 3
These livestock breeds also serve as an important genetic resource, and when heritage breeds become extinct, their unique genes are lost forever and can’t be used to breed new traits into existing livestock breeds. Therefore, by raising heritage livestock breeds, sustainable farmers not only maintain variety within our livestock populations, they also help to preserve valuable traits within the species so that future breeds can endure harsh conditions.
There is no official definition or certification for “heritage” animals, but for a livestock breed to be truly heritage, it must have unique genetic traits and also be raised on a sustainable and/or organic farm. Heritage animals are well-suited to sustainable farms since they are able to survive without the temperature-controlled buildings and constant doses of antibiotics administered to the commercial breeds raised on factory farms.
According to Seed Savers Exchange (a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving rare plant varieties), an heirloom plant is “any garden plant that has a history of being passed down within a family.” 3 While some argue that an heirloom variety must be at least 50 to 100 years old, all agree that heirloom fruits and vegetables are unique plant varieties which are genetically distinct from the commercial varieties popularized by industrial agriculture.
Sustainable farmers who grow heirloom fruits and vegetables help to preserve genetic diversity by ensuring that these unique plant varieties are not completely replaced by the few commercial varieties that are mass-produced by industrial agriculture. They also preserve delicious, unique and interesting kinds of fruits, vegetables and grains that add color and flavor to meals that everyone can enjoy.
There are still small farms throughout the US and Canada that specialize in producing heirloom and heritage foods. Visit the Eat Well Guide to find a farm, market or restaurant near you that sells meat, eggs and dairy products from heritage animals.
Try cooking with heirloom crop varieties to add exciting new elements to your meals; heirloom fruits and vegetables have unique colors, textures, and tastes that can’t be found in factory-farmed industrial produce. They can often be found at farmers markets around the country.