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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16 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Ben

    It becomes even scarier knowing that most of theses are actually owned by companies. There goes "nature"

  • rw

    Nature? Are you aware for instance that corn never existed in the wild at all? All of the plants we eat are the result of our genetic manipulation. If you'd like to eat 1cm large strawberries have at it. But the things we eat are our creation. 

  • CR Mudgin

    Weren't most of the vegetable varieties created from wild plants by humans in the first place? If so perhaps we should be lamenting the loss of agricultural ingenuity and not the loss of a few flavors or peas or squash.