Our Dwindling Food Variety

This astonishing graphic from National Geographic shows the sharp decrease in seed variety over the past hundred years. Take a look:

Seeds vanished because farmers found they got higher yields and more protection against drought and blight with other varieties. However, this narrowing of crop diversity has been shown to reduce the ability of crops to fight off certain kinds of blight. Entire yields can be wiped out because of this genetic uniformity. If there’s a fungus particular to, say, one variety of grape, and almost everyone is planting that type of grape, vast amounts of food can be lost. It’s happened before, and with farmers planting only 12 types of corn, rather than 300, it can happen again.

h/t Sean Dailey, editor of the wonderful Gilbert.



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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    Point taken, but how many of those almost 300 varieties of cucumber in 1903 were drought resistant, blight resistant, or even tasted very good? Given the way technology works, I have to believe that the 16 we have now have been bred and engineered to be better (more hearty and juicy) than the 285 we had before (when about all you could do with a cucumber was pickle it). 70 years ago there were lots of makes of automobiles than aren’t around today, but would anyone considering the safety and convenience of their family’s transportation really trade their 2012 Ford for a 1920 Packard or a 1915 REO?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I don’t doubt that the narrowing of diversity was because the newer seeds were better in some very appealing ways, although that in itself is a problem because some of them are genetically modified. (You want to get a gathering of food rights people upset, just say the word “Monsanto.”) But that doesn’t change the fact that lower diversity puts crops at risk. The diversity may well bring protection from known problems, but as Donald Rumsfeld said, What about the unknown unknowns? We’re seeing similar issues with antibiotics, as bacteria are changing faster than our ability to make drugs to fight them.

  • victor

    I’ll take a few new strains of bacteria since on balance it’s meant no more pandemics like what happened in 1918 (where as I understand it most of the deaths were caused by seconary bacterial infections which would have been easily treatable with antibiotics, and not the flu virus itself). I also don’t really see a huge issue with genetically modifying food since humans have been doing that in one form or another for thousands of years already, resulting in greater yields and more people fed. Regardless, though, it’s not like those old seeds don’t exist anymore. You just can’t buy them from Burpee’s.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    Thanks for this story. I used to work (in college) in plant agricultural research, breeding crops and such. The lack of genetic diversity in the field is a genuine concern because of disease and pests, as you mention. But I know there are a lot of seed banks (not just in Svalbard) and they are being regularly maintained and used for breeding new varieties. That’s not to say the maintenance might be poor. Breeds can be lost due to neglect and error, and those are bad losses, hundreds of years of human labor and genetic resources wasted. But for field crops it is a trade-off – the slight risk of losing everything versus the greater likelihood that your field will be just fine and produce something people like and at high yield. Also, like Victor I’m not much concerned about biotech – I worked in both traditional and biotech breeding programs and honestly the biotech is much more controlled, precise, predictable, and just as safe or safer. The problems come with weird things like putting nut genes in a tomato, and then people with nut allergies are unexpectedly allergic to tomatoes. But as far as I know that is a known danger and so is not done. Of course, unknown unknowns are always a problem, but with biotech, as I said, I think there are actually fewer of these than with traditional breeding. (I once heard of a project where they bred celery over several generations via traditional methods to be pest resistant, and then when they went to harvest the best plants at the end the laborers got rashes all over their arms and legs like from nettles or poison oak! That celery was pest-resistant all right!)

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Those are amazing stories, Brian. You should do a post on it.

    I’m still concerned about GMOs (not afraid or against, just … concerned). I understand that we’ve been doing it for years through hybridization, but meddling with things at a genetic level seems to requires more caution than we’re seeing. Also, the “copyright” issues, “terminator” seeds, and hyper- litigiousness of Monsanto and others does bother me.

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    Thanks for the suggestion to post on it, I might just do that. :)
    You are right that there is something strange about biotech and GMOs. It is a strange power, and worthy of our concern, as long as we also temper our concerns with good data. It is not a power to wield lightly. (Glowing tobacco – especially with a protein called “luciferin” – was probably a bad first move on biotech’s part…)
    Your last sentence hits my primary concern – our food will be all patented, and Monsanto will have us by it. More than food safety (threat of lawsuit does a lot to protect that) the patenting and corporate control of the food system bothers me. Good reason to grow your own veggies, plant a few fruit trees, and get some chickens!