Infographic: In 80 Years, We Lost 93% Of Variety In Our Food Seeds

It’s downright scary to see the lack of diversity in the healthiest foods we eat.

Seeds are tricky things. On one hand, we have the whole Omnivore’s Dilemma argument, that industrialized and genetically engineered food is probably bad. And on the other, we have strains of vegetables that can grow four times as much produce on the same plot of land as their heirloom counterparts—a successful, man-dictated genetics that we’ve actually been fueling for millennia. After all, we wouldn’t have the heirloom seeds of today if our grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather hadn’t saved the seeds from the sweetest watermelons or the most drought-resistant cantaloupes.

I don’t know that any of us can honestly assess the repercussions of our actions, but I do know one thing: This National Geographic infographic by John Tomanio is staggering. Using the metaphor of a tree, it charts the loss of U.S. seed variety from 1903 to 1983. And what you see is that we’ve lost about 93% of our unique seed strands behind some of the most popular produce. (Clever details: Where the root system should be strong, Tomanio has rendered a tree that looks like it could tip right out of the ground.)

In 1903, we had almost 500 varieties of lettuce. By 1983, we had just 36. Radishes, peas, and beets have fared no better. In fact, the most steadfast of the crops has been the tomato, which, probably due to the popularity of strange and tasty heirloom varieties, only lost about 80% of its seed diversity. It’s a shame to lose so many intricacies of nature’s tastiest gifts. But more worryingly, monocultures strip the land of nutrients: Where you once had self-sustaining harvest cycles, you get farm land denuded of nutrients that then needs copious chemical fertilizers to grow more food. And the crops themselves become vulnerable to plant diseases.

Still, a lot has changed in the public consciousness since 1983. Farmers markets aren’t just for hippies anymore—they’re lifestyle statements for everyone from young foodies to soccer moms. And as long as this trend stays alive, so too will many of the heirloom seed strands we have remaining.

[Image: NixPhotography/Shutterstock]

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25 Comments

  • Georgie Lea Smith

    Ah...this was posted almost 3 years ago. The damage has been done. Sigh....

  • Georgie Lea Smith

    Ah...this was posted almost 3 years ago. The damage has been done. Sigh....

  • Georgie Lea Smith

    You need to correct this article. From how I'm reading this (and I just linked to the national geographic original article) what this is saying is that, for lettuce, for instance, in 1903 there were 497 varieties of lettuce listed in seed catalog, of which, in 1983, on 36 were remaining in the national seed storage laboratory. So, hence, the assumption is that there are 461 varieties of lettuce that existed in 1903 that are no longer around in 1983. But what this article is NOT SAYING is that there are only 36 varieties of seed lettuce available commercially now. On my 15 acre vegetable farm we are growing close to 15 different varieties of lettuce alone, and only that many because I finally cut myself off from ordering even more varieties! I could link you to numerous seed catalogs that have more than 30 varieties of lettuce offered in their 2015 offerings right now (and they are different from each other!).

  • Georgie Lea Smith

    Gonna reply to myself again cuz made a typo and can't figure out how to fix it...first comment line should read "But what this info graphic is not saying is that there are only 36 varieties of seed lettuce available commercially now." I wrote "article" instead info graphic. Which is confusing cuz that is exactly what the article is saying (mistakenly). See how confusing this is????

  • Georgie Lea Smith

    (I'm replying to myself cuz I wasn't done commenting but got cut off)... Many (most) of these lettuce varieties are newer developed varieties, not the heirlooms that were noted in 1893. But the conjecture of this article that "in 80 years we lost 93% of our variety in our food seeds" is wrong. It doesn't mean that loss of heirloom varieties ISN'T occurring and ISN'T important, especially as their varieties often contain important genetic traits. But let's get our information correct here rather than muddle the water even more!
    And it doesn't also mean that our commercial food stream of what is generally available in most grocery stores in these crops hasn't gotten severely limited (lettuce is again, a great example, the typical grocery store maybe will have 3 to 4 different types of lettuce available, if that). But again, this is a different issue than what this article is claiming. The food system and these issues can be complex, misinformation doesn't help.

  • Thenewtbaron

    sorry but you are using two differing metrics in your measurements.

    the top is 100 years ago - multiple businesses stated they had x variety
    the bottom is 30 years ago - one place scientifically stated they had x variety

    the "variety' stated by the businesses might not be an actual variety. one seed house could call it a gala apple and another could call it a david's delicious apple but they might be the same thing genetically. businesses also have a reason to tout the large amount of variety - incentive to talk up variety. The scientific place is trying to boil down the actual species and sub-types. so if there are 40 types and 8 subtypes for each, they might balance out.

    self-sustaining crop cycles are more about what cycle of crops you plant, very rarely does it revolve around a single plant.

  • Aaron C

    It's truly shoking how many different species we are losing. During university, I developed a product that encouraged seed saving and sharing in the home. http://www.behance.net/gallery....

    In a few simple steps, seeds can be saved and stored in a fridge for years and then passed on when appropriate. The product dries the seeds to an appropriate level for fridge storage and uses an indicator to let you know when they're dry enough.

    Aaron, UK

  • MB

    This is not accurate. Stokes, for example, currently offers 81 varieties of corn. Where did the "12" in the figure above come from?
    MB, Seattle

  • Al

    Re my comment below, I took a closer look at http://www.stokeseeds.com/ and counted 85 sub-types within 8 types. Looking at 
    http://www.stokeseeds.com/file... they list those main types as "genotypes", or "corn types", and the subtypes, of which there are thousands being trialled, as "varieties", each within one genotype or corn type.

    So it seems the point of the graphic stands - there may be a huge number of seed sub-types with different properties, and more are always being developed, but it seems there really are only a very small number of types that can be called significantly genetically distinct.

  • al

    Interesting - can you offer a link to these 81 varieties of corn? Stokes' site only gives 7 broad types. 

    I'm no expert at all but an issue could be differing definitions of types. For example, if a commercial seed seller takes a seed type and selectively cultivates 5 varieties that are suited to, say, 5 different climates, then from a business point of view they have 5 varieties and they will market these 5 varieties accordingly. But from the point of view of a 3rd party organisation looking at genetic diversity, these will all be one variety. They will still have very similar genetics, and very similar genetic vulnerabilities.There are always countless ways of categorising anything that are correct depending on what question is being asked for what reason.

  • Georgie Lea Smith

    Yeah, um Mark, you are not an expert. Other than a few very specific crops, like garlic for instance, which is exactly a "clone" of itself, when a seed grower breeds out different varieties to get a stable population (i.e. a population that would breed true to itself), yes they are actually different. Those 5 different varieties are actually 5 different varieties (not just the same variety marketed different) and that isn't really any different today than it was in 1893 (other than today's different varieties can also contain GMO's and other "enhanced" genes). With different crops this can be wildly more complicated making breeding for genetically "stable" population hard (or impossible). For instance, apples are a great example. they have a highly genetically diverse, so if you plant seed from a Golden Delicious apple you will get a wildly diverse crop of "baby" apple trees and unlikely a single one will be golden delicious-like. This is why apple varieties are grafted.

  • DCYR67

     Are they true varieties or a number of strands that have been genetically modified? Their website makes it look like the latter.

  • Lena Chow

    we still have a lot of those plants above in Indonesia.
    buy and cook it for everyday's meal.
    so i don't think they're about to extinct just yet.

  • Geoff

    The actual numbers available are far more than appear to be stored in the National Seed Laboratory.  Unfortunately, I think it says more about the capability or completeness of the National Seed Laboratory.  If you skim a few catalogs, you'll readily find more than 25 varieties of peas, for example. For a commentary on whether the numbers are realistic, see 
    http://reason.com/blog/2011/08...

    This doesn't diminish a very valid concern for the dramatic reduction in varieties that are actually grown by farmers on commercial scale, but that's not the same as the varieties being extinct.

  • Meg Cater

    Interesting Mark! I interviewed a woman last month on this subject and heirloom vegetables for my blog.

    You might find our dialogue intriguing, it's imbedded in this rather corny blog post:)  http://www.smarterlifebetterpl...

    I appreciate the infographic, it puts all the the stats in perspective!

  • Vatren

    This is so wrong in many aspects. Visit the following organizations to really learn the truth.
    NUTRIENTS FOR LIVE , American Society of Agronomy, American Society of Plant Biologists, International Society of Horticultural Sciences, Fluid Fertilizer Foundation,
    Visit this groups balance what you read there with what you get from other places and then you are prepared to understand.

  • ScoobyDooPoo

     Good idea to trust plant modifiers to tell you how good plant modification is.