Researchers find no loss of vegetable diversity in the 20th century; correct math error in 1983 study

September 15, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Two University of Georgia scholars argue against the conventional wisdom that the 20th century was a disaster for vegetable crop diversity by showing that there was no overall loss of vegetable diversity in that era.

Paul J. Heald, Post Professor at the School of Law, and Susannah Chapman, a Ph.D student in the anthropology department, have compared the availability of varieties in commercial seed catalogs in 1903 to those available in 2004.

The two UGA researchers report that in 1903, 7,262 varieties of 48 crop vegetables were available and, in 2004, only 2.2 percent fewer varieties were available, showing almost no loss of overall varietal diversity. However, they did find that 94 percent of the seed varieties listed in the 1903 USDA catalog were no longer available from the most common commercial sources, meaning a 6 percent survival rate from 1903.

“The lack of loss in the overall diversity of seeds can be explained by the fact that preservationists have identified and maintained some of the old seeds, importers have brought in new varieties, and farmers and enthusiastic gardeners have developed new varieties,” Heald said.

Today’s growers of garden beans, garlic, lettuce, peppers, squash and tomatoes have many more choices than they did 100 years ago, while growers of sugar beets, cabbage, field corn, radishes and rutabagas have vastly fewer selections available to them, according to the study.

Additionally, Heald and Chapman report that W.W. Tracy, author of the 1903 USDA inventory list, said at the time of his study, “Variety names of vegetables in this country are being greatly multiplied every year by the renaming of old varieties.”

According to Heald and Chapman, this means many of the reported seed varieties in 1903 were actually the same variety of seed but listed under different names. “Because of the past issue of multiple naming, consumers of seeds today may actually have even more choices than in 1903, even though many of the 1903 varieties no longer exist,” Heald said.

During the course of their research, Heald and Chapman discovered a math error in a widely accepted study on crop varieties. Carey Fowler and Pat Mooney reported that a 1983 study of seeds held in the National Seed Storage Laboratory conducted by the Plant Genetic Resources Project of the Rural Advancement Fund showed that 97 percent of the vegetable varieties listed on a 1903 USDA inventory of seeds were extinct, meaning there was only a 3 percent survival rate. However, Heald and Chapman found a calculation error and report the actual survival rate for seed varieties was 7.4 percent through 1983, more than double than what was previously thought.

The next phase of Heald and Chapman’s research will further examine patent activity for the crops that experienced the greatest diversity gains during the 20th century. Preliminary findings suggest no correlation between varietal replacement and patents in the six most diverse varieties.

More information: Heald and Chapman’s paper can be downloaded for free from the Social Science Research Network at papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1462917 .

Provided by University of Georgia (news : web)

Explore further: Rubbish heaps helped crops evolve

Related Stories

Rubbish heaps helped crops evolve

August 20, 2007

Rubbish heaps and backyard gardens helped early farmers domesticate crop plants, according to Oxford University scientists. Their research confirms that seeds and fruits gathered in the wild and then discarded or planted ...

Recommended for you

Out of the lamplight

July 31, 2015

The human body is governed by complex biochemical circuits. Chemical inputs spur chain reactions that generate new outputs. Understanding how these circuits work—how their components interact to enable life—is critical ...

Cell aging slowed by putting brakes on noisy transcription

July 30, 2015

Working with yeast and worms, researchers found that incorrect gene expression is a hallmark of aged cells and that reducing such "noise" extends lifespan in these organisms. The team published their findings this month in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.