Why celebrate the wealth of seed varieties?

a peek into diversity

Several years ago I travelled to Decorah, Iowa to visit Seed Savers Exchange‘s Heritage Farm for the first time.  Before I went, I looked at their calendar of events to find that the annual tomato tasting competition would take place the same weekend.  Cool, right?  Hmmm, questionable for a guy who hates the taste of nearly every raw tomato.  But a little “When in Rome” hit me.  I figured, love it or hate it, I needed to participate along with the scores of other people there.  It would make for a great story, to say the least.  (I’d like to point out that of the 49 tomatoes in the competition — all of which I tasted — I helped pick the winner:  the Igleheart Yellow Cherry Tomato.)

Do the places you shop for food carry 49 different tomato varieties?  Or how many of the roughly 10,000 – 15,000 varieties that exist in the world?  

Orange Icicle Tomato

criteria for mass sales

What’s that?  Your grocery store only carries a few varieties.  Well, that’s certainly a shame.  But, it must be carrying the most tasty or the most nutritious of the bunch then, right? Sorry.  Amongst the criteria for what tomatoes make it to mass market, taste and nutrition are not likely high on the list.  One criterion that does score high is if the plants that produce the tomatoes have high yields. Another is if the tomatoes travel long distances well. And, then there’s if they are pleasing to the eye once they make it to the grocery store.

why seed diversity matters?

So, why do I love (and want to protect) seed diversity?  

Well, first and foremost, there’s the need to keep our food supply as resilient as possible. As noted in Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance:

The way a plant or animal avoids extinction is by retaining enough genetic variety to adapt successfully to changes in the environment. If its range of genetic diversity is narrowed then its vulnerability is correspondingly increased, sometimes to the point that a threshold is crossed and the complete disappearance of the species becomes inevitable (Gore, pp. 136 – 137).

Regrettably, we are not headed in the right direction. “Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties” (FAO, What Is Happening to Agrobiodiversity)

On a personal level, I love that seed diversity within one line of produce grows veggies that taste different, smell different, look different, or have different textures than others.  There’s also the variety in the nutritional values.  

making food choices I think are important

Each year, I pour over the descriptions seed catalogs provide for each variety of a vegetable I might want to grow.  I appreciate that the descriptions often give notes on the qualities I raised in the paragraph above.

White Acorn Squash

I usually start my search by compiling a long list that must be winnowed down.  There’s only so much space in my seven large and four small raised beds after all.  I try to guess which veggies I will want to grow:  some for a plant’s beauty (e.g. the White Acorn Squash, pictured above), some for the taste (e.g. Black Futsu Winter Squash), and some for the nutritional value (e.g. Merlot Lettuce).

By the end I usually have between 30 – 50 varieties within roughly 12 – 15 types of veggies I want to grow.  And then, of course, there are the flowers and sunflowers! We’ll save that for another post.