One of my favorite tips for healthy eating is to get a wide variety of colorful plant foods. Greater dietary diversity means a wider array of nutrients to support all aspects of the body.
That’s why when I go to the market I fill my bags with all sorts of different things: several different kinds of leafy greens like kale, chard, arugula, and spinach; multiple colors and types of peppers; plenty of aromatics like red and yellow onions and garlic; the list goes on and on.
But here’s the thing: we don’t have nearly the selection of produce our ancestors did, because of a dwindling seed selection.
Between 1903 and 1983 we lost an astonishing 93% of our unique seed varieties. For example, in 1903 there were nearly 500 varieties of lettuce commonly grown; by 1983 that number was down to 36. And that is just one type of crop.
This poses more issues than just a lack of selection at the market. Seed diversity complements soil diversity—meaning a certain type of radish can do wonderfully in one part of the world and terribly in another. Unique seed varieties allow farmers a better chance at a productive harvest and is also a form of insurance: if one crop doesn’t grow the way you had hoped, you have others to fall back on.
Conventional agriculture does the exact opposite by embracing monoculture, meaning one crop may be grown over thousands of acres. And then the same thing is grown again after harvest. This depletes the nutrients in the soil and puts the farmer at risk (and in need of government subsidies) should something threaten that particular crop.
Several of those threats come from climate change, which means new weather events, pests, and diseases in parts of the world they previously didn’t affect. Genetic diversity among seeds gives us a fighting chance to adapt and overcome these challenges.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment about the state of our seeds is the tradition and culture being lost. For thousands of years, seeds were saved and exchanged as part of community self-preservation. Now, 68% of the remaining seed varieties are in the hands of just three companies globally, which disempowers farmers, erases culinary traditions, and puts our food security at a higher risk for complications. Genetically modified seeds make the problem even worse, by creating farmer dependence on Big Agribusiness, putting them in risky legal waters, and destroying seed-saving knowledge amongst generations.
If you missed last week’s episode of The Doctor’s Farmacy, mastermind chef Dan Barber joined me to discuss the importance of seeds when it comes to cooking, farming, and our health. Dan’s taking the farm-to-table movement a step further by supporting a whole-farm approach with consumer-driven crop diversity and seed cultivation based on flavor and variety.
I hope you’ll tune in to the latest episode of my podcast to get a better understanding of how seeds can save the future of our food system.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD