Known today as the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP), the laboratory collected seed data on 10 common produce items: beets, cabbages, sweet corn, lettuces, muskmelons, peas, radishes, squashes, tomatoes and cucumbers. NCGRP compared the availability of seeds for each of these items in 1903 to their availability in 1983, which was still long before the time genetically modified organisms (GMOs) hit the scene.
Based on the data, seed stocks have shrunk dramatically over the course of the past century, with many heirloom varieties of produce disappearing from the commercial seed supply. According to National Geographic, which recently put out an "infographic" illustrating this decline in seed diversity, many heirloom varieties of common fruits and vegetables that were cultivated by generations before us have gone completely extinct.
"As we've come to depend on a handful of commercial varieties of fruits and vegetables, thousands of heirloom varieties have disappeared," explains National Geographic. "It's hard to know exactly how many have been lost over the past century."
Cabbage, for instance, used to have some 544 known varieties available on the commercial market back in 1903. At the time when the survey was conducted in 1983, there were only 28 varieties remaining, with likely even fewer remaining today. The same goes for lettuces, which had about 497 varieties back in 1903. Today, there are only 36 commercially available varieties of lettuce on the market.
93 percent of heirloom seed varieties have gone extinct
Among all the categories sampled, there has been a collective seed diversity decrease of at least 1,200 percent since 1903, a shocking figure that is probably even higher today. And as far as the availability of heirloom seed varieties is concerned, a sobering 93 percent have more than likely gone extinct since the turn of the 20th Century, in large part due to the consolidation of agriculture and the adoption of monoculture practices that encourage growing just one variety of one crop.
"It's a shame to lose so many intricacies of nature's tastiest gifts," writes Mark Wilson for Fast Company. "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."
The surge in popularity of artisanal agriculture systems that incorporate growing a multitude of unique crops together is helping to reverse this trend, at least somewhat. But in some respects, the damage has already been done, as many heirloom crop varieties have already gone the way of the buffalo, never again to see a patch of soil let alone a farmers market.
"The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates a loss of cultivated agricultural biodiversity of 75% since 1900, when the seed market emerged," reads a report compiled by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.
Be sure to check out the National Geographic infographic to see a visual of the decline in seed diversity: NGM.NationalGeographic.com.
Sources for this article include: