How many different types of plants do you eat per day? Honestly, look at what you ate yesterday and type up the list of foods in the comment section. To avoid being a hypocrite, here’s my list: fennel, celery, carrots, onion, corn, quinoa, peanuts, chocolate, parsley, apple, rice, and potato. Twelve plants. Not all that many, and I’d bet that if any of you ate the same foods, we probably ate the same varieties unless you grew it yourself or bought it from a small farmer. Some of you probably ate even fewer plants.

Are our lists long enough for the future? Absolutely not. Retaining a wide range of plant characteristics– like the ability to thrive on poor soil, or survive a drought– and genetics is vital to our future diet and health. What with climate change, diseases and pests developing new ranges, and general uncertainty about the future of our food system, we the people need to take action. This is about what you’ll be able to eat in 30 or 40 years (or what your children will be eating). Merely being able to grow big straight heads of celery is enough when you can irrigate heavily and use all the chemical support you want but may not be enough in the future.

Supporting biodiversity in our food plants also means supporting alternate sources of nutrients. Commercially grown carrots contain negligible vitamin C, but some heirloom varieties may have as much as 40 or 50 mg per serving (about half your daily needs). The red speckles in that spotty lettuce offer another batch of potentially beneficial phytochemicals. Interestingly, a study done in the ’90s found that a number of nutrients levels in modern foods had dropped compared to the same foods in the ’50s. Cultivation practices may certainly play a role, but plant breeding focusing on larger yields and fast growth has certainly not helped. Saving and eating older and interesting heirloom varieties has the potential to affect your health today, as well as our national food security in an uncertain agricultural future.

What can you do? Eat the odd varieties. (They usually taste better than what your grocery store carries.) Support farmers who grow out heirloom varieties, and restaurants who use them. Donate some money to organizations devoted to keeping living repositories of plant genetics, or frozen seeds. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, plant some yourself. Save some seeds. Share them with your coworkers, your friends, your relatives. Most of all, spread the word. Link to this post or other material. Talk about the need for more varieties of common foods, and how you are contributing. Dedicate a little time or money, and you may be the tipping point who is responsible for averting the 21st century American corn famine.

Citation: Mayer A-M. Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables. Brit Food J. 1997;96(6):207-211.

Millennium Seed Bank
Seed Savers Exchange
Global Crop Diversity Trust
Slow Food’s Ark of Taste