How many types of tomatoes existed 100 years ago?
Something I didn't think about for most of my life was what type of tomato I was eating. I didn't know there were different varieties. I just thought a tomato was a tomato. I could tell the difference between a big tomato and a grape tomato, but that's about it. But as I started reading and learning more about healthy eating, I realized that there are tons of tomato varieties I had never seen before. Now, when I go to the farmers market or a healthy eating conference, I always hear people gushing about the particular type of heirloom tomato that they love the most. There are, in fact, 79 different types of tomato seeds that can be found in the National Seed Storage Laboratory. Different tomatoes have different flavors, shapes, and textures, and some types are better for cooking certain dishes than others. The image at the right shows some of these types.
But tomatoes aren't the only food with this much variety. There are also 28 types of cabbage, 36 types of lettuce, and 16 types of cucumbers. There are 25 types of peas, and 17 different beet varieties. Needless to say, I had no idea, and neither do most people, because grocery stores often carry just one or two varieties of these fruits and vegetables. Consumers are used to getting the same type of food everywhere they go, so a grocery store in California is expected to carry the exact same type of tomato as a store in Kansas. We are used to perfectly red tomatoes, gorgeous orange carrots, and big purple beets. But striped tomatoes, purple carrots, and orange beets exist too.
Unfortunately, these varieties are disappearing quickly. As this National Geographic image shows below, we used to have way more variety. A hundred years ago, we had almost 500 varieties of lettuce, 400 types of tomatoes, and 338 types of muskmelon. Now our seed variety has dwindled drastically.
This lack of vegetable variety doesn't just mean less colorful grocery shelves. It means that farmers have learned to grow just one type of lettuce, corn, or tomato on their farm fields. They have acres and acres of the same food, which increases the likelihood that the crop will be wiped out by a disease or insect. This practice of growing only one type of crop, called "monocropping" or "monoculture," is bad for the soil as well. But it's what farmers do, because it's what we demand at grocery stores.
Increasing the variety of seeds we grow in the U.S. is important. Different varieties of food offer different tastes and different nutrients. It's also fun to figure out how to cook with new types of foods. There are ways we can help increase the variety of seeds that farmers grow. I have been wanting to get a CSA share for years, so it will force me to try out different types of fruits and vegetables. Shop at farmers markets if possible, and buy new types of fruits and vegetables there. At the grocery store, look for more unusual varieties of the foods you usually buy. The more people demand a variety of fruits and vegetables, the more likely these varieties will stick around for the next one hundred years.
Image source: Readyplanted