Infographic with a BIG grain of salt

Infographics can be great: They’re bright colorful ways to make sometimes complex concepts visual and easy to understand. Sadly, “easy to understand” does not necessarily equal “accurate” and they can also be extremely misleading.

Take this beautifully made image from National Geographic. It is an older image — first posted back in 2011, but it makes the rounds on social media from time to time, and popped up in my facebook newsfeed a couple days ago.

Look at it! Oh no! We’re loosing all of our vegetable genetic diversity!

Or not. First, it is comparing apples to oranges. This image looks a commercially available varieties in 1903 and compares it to the number of varieties in one specific center for preserving genetic diversity. What happens if we compare the same metric? If you look at the number of varieties in the National Seed Storage Laboratory, that was founded in 1958… so in 1903, at the top of the graph, the number for all these vegetables would be… zero. If you look at the present day, the current umbrella organization for all the US government funded efforts to preserve genetic diversity of crop plants is GRIN, (Germplasm Resources Information Network)  and if I do a quick search through that database using the keyword “tomato” I get… 9281 results. That is a pretty overwhelming improvement over 79 in 1983.

And what about commercially available varieties? To use tomato as an example again, in 1903, they found 408 varieties offered commercially. I just added up the varieties listed by just ONE seed company, Baker Creek Seeds, currently lists 287 different varieties of tomatoes. That is just ONE company. I have no doubt that if I added up all the varieties that are offered for sale in the giant pile of seed catalogs I get every spring it would be FAR more than the 408 on offer in 1903.

So… are we losing genetic diversity in our crop plants? Probably. There are lots of traditional varieties and land races that were never available commercially that have do doubt been lost, but to be honest, I think we’ve done a pretty good job at preserving the diversity. And certainly the USDA’s system of gene banks is an incredibly well run, impressive thing that deserves high praise indeed, for not merely preserving vast amounts of important genetic diversity but also working hard to characterize it and make it available to researchers and breeders so it can actually be put to work in the development of new and improved selections to try and feed the world.

So despite how colorful and easy to understand this infographic is, you don’t need to freak out about a massive loss of genetic diversity in our vegetable crops. Save that freaking out for all the wild species that have gone extinct or are about to go extinct thanks to habitat destruction and climate change world wide…

12 thoughts on “Infographic with a BIG grain of salt”

    1. I tend to think that evolution tends to keep genetic information even though they are not currently being expressed. Human embryo’s have a tail for a time during development and this genetic information is still there, just buried under newer evolutionary information.
      So called “heritage” garden varieties are usually just the selection of a few traits that the plant breeder deemed valuable during development. A tomato today can be fertilized by a heritage variety from 100 years ago. A species is a species.
      So even if the graphic was accurate (which doesn’t seem the case) the only thing lost is the work that the original plant breeders did.

    2. Yes, habit loss is leading to the extinction of plants, animals and insects. However, habitat loss is not the subject of this article..

  1. Great info, very interesting on the second, deeper look, thanks for positing this. I think you should add an author name on the posts. No identity reduces credibility. Maybe the author is listed, but I cannot see it, best wishes,
    Mary

    1. Mary, the author of the blog post is listed at the top of the article, Joseph Tychonievich. He’s new to The Garden Professors Blog but certainly not new to the field!

  2. I think the Seed Savers Exchange member catalog has something like 250 pages of different tomato varieties. Yeah pages. And they are laid out like a phonebook.

  3. Thank you for this excellent example of “skewing” the facts, Joseph. We all need to learn to read with more discernment and this is a perfect illustration. And welcome to the blog! I’m a Master Gardener with the Chesterfield VA office of Cooperative Extension and on the committee that’s planning next year’s Horticultural Horizons event. I’m looking forward to hearing you talk next May!

  4. One lesson here is simply to be wary of any information we get. What is the source and how reliable is it. Joseph, who I know is a reliable reporter, has assured me that enough biodiversity is being saved – but we must be ever vigilant.

  5. “you don’t need to freak out about a massive loss of genetic diversity in our vegetable crops”

    I think some freaking out is still in order, but I agree with your point of how the data backing the info-graphic is flawed. Isn’t the reason people are worried due to the monocultures / minimal genetic diversity of the crops that are *actually growing in the ground* these days? Having diversity in available seeds is one thing, but I thought the real issue was shrinking diversity of crops that are actually being grown.

    Potential issues:

    1) Storing seeds doesn’t tell us if the plant would survive pathogens that have evolved / propagated since that plant last saw widespread use.
    2) Growing mono-cultures makes our food supply more exposed to sudden diseases / evolution of pathogens.
    3) Monocultures mean natural selection and unnatural selection (i.e. human-guided selective propagation) is happening only on a much smaller subset of the total potential crop “genetic pool” that is available. Storing seeds doesn’t help with his.

    1. Jarrod,
      You raise some interesting points, all of which are worthy of a post of their own! Here are my quick thoughts about them.
      1. Yes, a variety in storage stops evolving — largely, there is still some level of selection as the seed has to be periodically sown out to produce a new seed crop, so a variety in a gene bank isn’t the same as having i in wide cultivation. On the flip side, gene banks make the genetics of these varieties widely available to breeders all over the world, so their genes are more likely to get spread around the gene pool then they would have been before.

      2. Absolutely, monocultures are, by their nature, vulnerable to a host of specific problems. They’re also a very efficient way to produce lots of food cheaply.

      3. Yes, this is true — when every farmer saved their own seed, there was some level of selection happening in every field. However, that doesn’t mean it was very effective selection. A trained breeder actively working with a field of plants specifically to develop new varieties can make much more rapid progress than a farmer who is focused first on producing a crop and only selecting secondarily. The advent of modern breeding and seed varieties has resulted in dramatic increases in yield and disease resistance in many crops. It does seem, however, that professional breeders are WORSE are developing more aesthetic characteristics like flavor or color. Just look at tomatoes as an example — old, heirloom varieties have terrible yield and disease resistance when compared to modern breeding, but have a much wider range of colors, forms, and flavors.

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