Crop Diversity Report Card for the Twentieth Century: Diversity Bust or Diversity Boom?


According to the conventional wisdom, the twentieth century was a disaster of monumental proportions for vegetable crop diversity. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Our study of 2004 commercial seed catalogs shows twice as many 1903 crop varieties surviving as previously reported in the iconic 1983 study on vegetable crop diversity. More important, we find that growers in 2004 had as many varieties to choose from (approximately 7100 varieties among 48 crops) as did their predecessors in 1903 (approximately 7262 varieties among the same 48 crops). In addition, we cast doubt on the number of distinct varieties actually available in 1903 by examining historical sources that expose the systematic practice of multiple naming. Finally, by looking more closely at the six biggest diversity winners of the twentieth century (tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, garden beans, squash, and garlic), we suggest that patent law is virtually irrelevant.