A diversity of gardeners

An article in last month’s National Geographic examines the loss of genetic diversity in the world’s crops, and this infographic, in particular, has been making the rounds of the Internet, at least in the corners where foodies and activists lurk. It shows the decline in diversity of common American garden vegetables between 1903 and 1983: more than 90 pecent of the varieties in existence at the turn of the twentieth century are now long gone. That loss of diversity has consequences beyond our inability to sample the flavor of a long-lost apple: with so little genetic stock available, changes in climate or a new disease might easily wipe out an entire crop, such as wheat, and we’d have no way to rebuild it.

It’s a lovely graphic, well designed and (if you aren’t already familiar with the issue) appropriately shocking. Like too many such graphics, though, this one doesn’t inspire much beyond despair. What can I, or anybody, do about it? The accompanying article gives the answer: I don’t have to do anything, because there are institutional “seed banks” working to preserve the genetic stock still remaining on the world’s farms. I’ve been shocked and then duly comforted; no need to get out of my reading chair. Let the experts handle it.

Except that this isn’t the right answer, or at least isn’t enough of one. Seed banks, valuable and worthwhile as they are, can only preserve the remaining — let’s say, as a round number — ten percent of the genetic diversity that once existed. But that ten percent is dangerously little. And institutions and experts can’t rebuild the remaining ninety percent, because they didn’t build it in the first place.

radishes from a seed catalog

Consider, first, that this graphic and the study on which it is based may actually understate the loss of genetic diversity in America’s farms and gardens. The data comes from a study conducted almost thirty years ago by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) comparing USDA listings of seed varieties sold by commercial U.S. seed houses in 1903 with those in the U.S. National Seed Storage Laboratory eighty years later. The former is an excellent, and likely the only, source of hard data from the turn of the last century about seed varieties. But it surely underrepresents the number of varieties in existence in 1903, and I suspect that by 1903 we may already have passed the peak of diversity.

Commercial seed companies offered only a fraction of the varieties actually grown in the United States in the nineteenth century, when farmers and gardeners saved seed each year from the best plants and developed, over a span of generations, varieties suited not only to their own regions but to their own neighborhoods and even to the unique microclimate of the particular patch of ground on which they kept their garden. Some were hobbyists, wealthy or even middle-class men who not only fooled around in the garden on the weekend, trying to breed the perfect melon or peach. Some had commercial aspirations, others just liked melons and peaches, but more than a few saw their work as a public service.

Yet most such husbandry may not have involved much conscious planning at all. Plants particularly susceptible to local diseases and pests didn’t survive, nor those that couldn’t survive the vagaries of local climate. Gardeners had to save seeds; it was only logical they’d save seeds from the best producers, the hardiest plants, the fruits that suited their own tastes. Wendell Berry has written of raising sheep that a successful farmer needs to know more than what constitutes a good specimen of an established breed; he needs to know what kind of animal will thrive on his farm. But “this need not be laborious, for your farm will be selecting along with you. You pick the individuals that look good. This always implies that they have done well…” 1

National Geographic‘s article is mainly about the rest of the world — that graphic focuses on the United States because that’s where the data is — and it’s mainly concerned with staple crops, with “feeding the world.” But I want to consider those American vegetables — those garden vegetables — because the history of how that diversity declines can tell us what really needs to be done to reverse it.

What works for sheep will work for tomatoes or lettuce or melons: let the farm judge, or, rather, the garden. And so the first step in the decline of fruit and vegetable diversity came when gardeners stopped letting the garden judge and turned increasingly to commercial seed houses — and especially so when, after the middle of the nineteenth century, those seed houses could ship by mail order. (Mail order, incidentally, required two other technologies. The first was the railroad. The second, more surprisingly, was the postage stamp, which could be used as a means of payment in the days before paper money or checks.) For the first time it was possible and profitable to ship the “best” varieties of fruits and vegetables far from the farms, neighborhoods, and regions where they had been bred.

If the first step in the loss of genetic diversity in gardens was the loss of diversity in breeders, the second was the loss of diversity in gardeners. Fewer customers meant fewer products and, eventually, fewer companies selling them. Home gardening declined steadily after the mid-nineteenth century, and though it experienced heralded revivals in the 1930s, 1970s, 1990s, and the past few years — coinciding every time with economic downturns — there are far fewer gardeners in the U.S. today than in 1900, and those that remain are too rarely the beneficiaries of inherited knowledge of gardening, let alone of a specific place in which one might garden. Most of us have tried our best to learn from books and television, but the garden ultimately has to judge us, as well, and that takes time, and practice, and patience. In the meantime, inexperienced as we are, we’re at the mercy of the lush photograph and the copywriter’s promises of bounty — or of the meager selection at the local hardware store.

The third step, of course, was the drive to “improvement” by a purely economic standard — the breeding of crops for high yield and industrial-scale processing or transport, the concentration of commercial growers in regions where those varieties grew best. The pursuit of profits in a twentieth-century national marketplace, let alone a twenty-first century international one, cranked that concentration of genetic material into overdrive. But it didn’t begin there.

What produced genetic diversity in vegetables was a diversity of gardeners and of breeders, each producing for his or her own place, needs, taste, and circumstances. It is wonderful that there are now organized efforts to conserve the genetic diversity of fruits and vegetables — and of staple crops, and of livestock and poultry — that still exists. But seed banks, however necessary, are only a stopgap. “The challenge,” says National Geographic, “has been to show it’s possible to increase productivity without sacrificing diversity,” because existing varieties have to be improved for their growers to compete in a global marketplace. That may or may not be possible: if everyone selects for a single quality, such as high yield, we may only repeat the process that gutted genetic diversity in the first place. But even if it is possible, improving existing varieties will only help to conserve the diversity that’s left — not to increase it. And while seed banks can keep the remaining varieties from disappearing, they can’t create new ones.

Who can create new varieties? The same people who created them in the first place: gardeners. I’m talking, still, about garden vegetables, but I say gardeners also because they don’t face the kinds of economic pressures that farmers do. Gardeners have the freedom to select for qualities that matter to them — which may have little to do with high yield and less to do with marketability. The perfect tomato may not be red, or round, or in the least bit photogenic, but rather squat, lopsided, and catfaced, chopped into a salad or sliced onto a sandwich. (Always carry a salt shaker in your tool belt.) The perfect lettuce may never form a head. The perfect melon may produce prolifically but have a quirky sort of flavor no professional agronomist would ever have thought to breed. Not to mention that some random Joe or Suzy Gardener might stumble across the mutation that lets cucumbers resist downy mildew. Direct marketing through farmers’ markets and CSAs lets professional farmers get away with growing varieties less “commercially viable” by the usual standards, but the farmers I know are too busy experimenting with techniques and existing varieties to deal with saving seed — and there aren’t enough of them anyway. The microclimate and soil of my yard aren’t the same as that of the nearest fruit and vegetable grower, three miles away: imagine how much diversity just that short distance could support!

If we’re going to significantly increase the diversity of fruits and vegetables, we’re going to have to significantly increase the diversity of gardeners and seed savers and plant breeders. We can’t rely on governments and a few nonprofits to restore what millions of people created, and few commercial growers can afford the risk. We’re going to have to learn not only to grow fruits and vegetables but to start them from seed; not only to start them from seed but to save seed from year to year; not only to save seed but to share it. And while the Internet is great for sharing ideas and trading tips, I mean share seed locally, with neighbors, as gardeners would have done before the commercial seed house and the mail-order catalog. We’re going to have to stay in one place long enough to know our place, to grow for it, to breed for it. We’re going to need millions of amateurs working in thousands of communities.

Impossible? Maybe. It certainly isn’t going to be easy, considering how much knowledge, tradition, and will has been lost. It will take slow, patient, hopeful work, with no guarantee of success, in the face of impending disaster. But that’s the solution. We need seed arks, yes, we need all the institutional support we can get, and we certainly need to conserve and improve existing rare varieties. But if we want a real diversity of crops, we’re going to need a diversity of gardeners.

  1. Wendell Berry, “Let the Farm Judge,” Farming, Spring 2012, p. 20, originally published in Citizenship Papers (2003).