Declining Vegetable Variety Diversity

A recent National Geographic article, “Our Dwindling Food Variety,” highlights an important issue that Cornell Garden-Based Learning’s Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners (VVfG) citizen science project  is working to ameliorate – the rapid rate at which heirloom vegetable varieties are disappearing, and the overall reduction in commercially available variety diversity.

The article cites a 1983 study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, which “compared USDA listings of seed varieties sold by commercial U.S. seed houses in 1903 with those in the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory in 1983.” The study had striking results: 93 percent of the varieties had gone extinct.

The National Geographic article concludes, “More up-to-date studies are needed,” and this is one of the ways in which VVfG and the youth-focused Vegetable varieties investigations (Vvi) are contributing. VVfG provides an avenue for its over 5,000 registered users to connect and share their successes and failures growing myriad hybrid, open pollinated, and heirloom varieties.

With a searchable online library of over 6,000 vegetable varieties connected to seed sources, VVfG makes it easier for gardeners to find unusual vegetables to try in their home, school, and community gardens. Indeed, growing heirloom varieties and creating a demand for the wide selection of vegetable varieties available is one of the most effective ways to maximize genetic diversity for present and future generations of gardeners to enjoy.


Fascinating graphic from National Geographic


By Ari Rockland-Miller

Cornell Garden-Based Learning


3 Responses to “Declining Vegetable Variety Diversity”

  1. Alan Durden says:

    While the purpose of this article, promoting VVfG and Vvi is admirable, the use of the National Geographic article for support is not a good choice.

    Cooperative Extension prides itself on providing unbiased, research based information. The National Geographic article, “Our Dwindling Food Variety“, and the 1983 study by the the Rural Advancement Foundation International it cites as evidence, don’t fit that criteria. We in extension should read and thoughtfully consider any article that we pass on to our clientele from sources outside extension. Many people and organizations have an agenda to promote above all other things.

    The 1983 USDA data is almost 30 years old. Seed catalogs and seed storage are not the same thing. The numbers are very misleading. It took me about 5 minutes to open a seed catalog off my shelf and count varieties available this year and compare with the numbers from the 1983 seed storage laboratory. The article infers that the 1983 numbers are a pretty complete count of available varieties. My 2011 numbers are from only one catalog.

    1983 beets 17—–my catalog has 15 varieties.
    1983 cabbage 28 —– my catalog has 12 varieties
    1983 lettuce 36——-my catalog has 34
    1983 muskmellon 27 ——my catalog has 80
    1983 peas 25 ——my catalog has 14
    1983 radishes 27 ——my catalog has 26
    1983 squash 40 —– my catalog has 111 (includes winter and summer squash)
    1983 tomatoes 79 ——my catalog has 227
    1983 cucumbers 16 —–my catalog has 24

    I think this illustrates my point. There are a lot more varieties than my one seed catalog contains. The use of selected data in this article is so obvious, I must ask myself, what is the purpose of using such incomplete or inaccurate data to write either the original 1983 study or the NG article that quotes it?

    Again, while the purpose of this article, promoting VVfG and Vvi is admirable, the use of the National Geographic article for support is not a good choice.

  2. Ari Rockland-Miller says:


    Thanks for your comment. I think you make a good point about the study comparing apples to oranges; I’m sorry I didn’t notice this flaw with the National Geographic article before posting. I agree that the article’s point would have been much stronger if it had compared seed houses to seed houses or the Seed Storage Laboratory inventory to the Seed Storage Laboratory inventory. I do think, though, that the main point still stands – vegetable variety diversity is declining, and Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners is a great tool to share information about vegetable varieties and their performance with other gardeners. I also did point out that the article stated that “more up-to-date studies are needed,” and your comment only reinforces this need.

    One more interesting thing to think about – even if we were comparing apples to apples, just looking at numbers of varieties is inherently slightly confusing or misleading without greater information. What is the quality of these varieties? Are they easily accessible to the general public? Are they stored in perpetuity in a seed bank? Are they patented hybrids owned by corporations that could disappear any day if a corporation decided to discontinue them? Or, are they open-pollinated varieties for which seed can be saved by gardeners? And, perhaps most importantly, how has the diversity of varieties actually grown by farmers/gardeners changed over time? It is not only important to have a bank or warehouse of diversity, but for this diversity to actually be reflected in our farms and gardens.

    Thanks again for bringing this to my attention and making all of us think about this issue on a deeper level.


  3. Amy says:

    Alan’s points about the age of the study and the NG article’s failure to highlight the difference between seed catalogs and seed storage are well taken. But, it doesn’t seem to me that either the NG article or the 1983 article is misleading. To me, a casual reader, the topic seems to be *not* whether we have more or fewer varieties than we did then, but whether those varieties which we had at the turn of the century [presumably, our culture’s “traditional” garden varieties, pre-green revolution, biotech, etc.] were still around 85 years later, and to ask whether they are around now, and what is being done to preserve them.