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There are 300,000 edible plant species on earth. Why do we eat so few of them?

In a world of enormous diversity, we can do better than the boring banana.


Some years ago, I discovered that the federal government will send you any crop seed you like within its 600,000-variety seed bank free of charge. There is no limit on the number of species you can request, and you’ll be shipped a packet or a dormant cutting at no cost within a matter of days. You can order up rare peaches, impossibly hot peppers, long-lost sweet potatoes, and hundreds of strains of heirloom onions. But there is a catch: You may not plant the seeds for food.

This paradoxical setup is the result of an amendment to the 1990 Farm Bill that established the National Plant Germplasm System, which included a massive seed bank open to researchers from agricultural companies and university agricultural programs. The $44 million-a-year initiative describes itself as a “collaborative effort to safeguard the genetic diversity of agriculturally important plants.”


The best way to do this, according to US agricultural policy, is to reserve the seed stores for corporate development and innovation.

The argument for incentivizing companies to develop new cultivars is reasonable enough: Americans consume only a handful of recognizable fruits and vegetables, while indulging in unhealthy foods with abandon. We eat the imported banana most readily, but still only consume it 90 times a year, on average, compared with the sugar-sweetened beverages most Americans drink daily. Our farm policy’s support of a few commodity crops and massive monocultures also leaves us vulnerable to the collapse of our extremely uniform food system.

I happened to come across this little-known seed vault program while searching for native plants for my Boston apartment’s coffin-length of soil. At the time, I was reading Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a delightful exploration of the history and science of what we eat. McGee points out that there are an estimated 300,000 edible plant species on earth, only a couple thousand of which we cultivate. He’s unable to contain his exclamation points: “We have plenty of exploring to do!”


On a now-defunct homestead blog, I found a 2010 post in which home gardeners debated the advantages of circulating the link to the NPGS’s order form. (At the time, it was incredibly hard to find, and without the blog post I never would have.) Half the commenters were indignant, essentially arguing that by sharing the resource they were in danger of the government closing the loophole they’d discovered. The other half were delighted to discover its existence and reported back on successfully requesting hard-to-find tomato and berry species under the guise of “research.”

The absurdity of all this cloak-and-dagger gardening might not be immediately obvious. We have become so accustomed to the idea that we cannot be trusted to choose what we eat, let alone grow our own food, we don’t think about rebelling against being deliberately excluded from the process.

The good food movement has brought us far over the past decade. Big Agriculture — or Big Ag, the consolidation of farming into corporations — has been forced, at the very least, to adopt the appearance of making food less unpronounceable, less damaging to our health, and more local. The US government launched a micro-loan program for small farms in 2013, but the percentage of subsidies going to independent farmers is still a tiny fraction of the trillion of dollars spent every five years on supporting agriculture. Less than 4 percent of farm subsidies go to fruits and vegetables.


We seem to have this persistent faith that we will be able to magic our way out of the mess we’ve made — or, more accurately, that we would like some large company to innovate us out of it. There is only evidence to the contrary: We have innovated our way into eating what can only be described as food by the most generous of definitions.

Until recently, food has been too cheap to make growing it a good economic decision for individuals. But with ballooning inflation, it could be a revolutionary one. Food prices increased 20 percent between 2018 and 2022, rising more quickly than housing, medical care, and all other major spending categories.

Progressive politicians who would support the diversification of our food supply would do well to consider hyper-local initiatives in the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill. A tiny fraction of what we invest in agricultural support and development for Big Ag could be allocated to home gardeners. They also could be made eligible for government support, and a free seed bank, with reasonable caps on supply.

For the time being, the keepers of our national germplasm consider most of its bounty “not suitable for backyard cultivation.” A friendly e-mail-answerer from the NPGS replied to my request for comment with the gentle reassurance that the nation’s stockpile is “most judiciously used supporting professional research science and breeding.”


Though perhaps, given the 60,000 square miles of lawn Americans tend devotedly, regulators might weigh up the risks and benefits of opening up the vault to those of us who’d like to putter about with exotic lettuces, instead of Bermuda grass. Gregor Mendel’s humble pea patch, after all, brought us the science of genes without him ever venturing beyond his own back garden. What other wonders might arise out of the soil of the eager amateur?

Caty Enders is a journalist and research scientist living in New Mexico. Send comments to