Where Our Food Comes From: A Book Review

Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine

By Gary Paul Nabhan, 2009. GPN is an ethnobiologist, conservationist, farmer and author of eight books.

Most of the crops we depend on for food were domesticated in ancient times, in just six regions on five continents.  This is the story of a brilliant Russian plant breeder who devoted his life to food security through exploring those regions to glean seeds and essential agrarian knowledge. Nabhan followed in Vavilov’s footsteps and met with scientists that continue this important seed conservation work.  He also talked with traditional farmers in the field on each of those continents.  Vavilov is recognized today for three primary contributions:

Establishing a seed bank from the hundreds of thousands of seed he collected.

Mapping the world’s centers of biodiversity for food crops, utilized today by conservation organizations as Biodiversity Hotspots.

Recognizing the importance of, and recording the knowledge of regional farmers about their crop varieties.

My favorite story was about a 90-year-old plant geneticist from Kazakhstan who told Nabhan how Vavilov changed his life.  One day the great scientist was coming to his town to look at the forests of wild apple trees in the surrounding hills. At the time, Dr. Aimak Dzangaliev was a sixteen-year-old stable boy who was invited to accompany Vavilov and translate for him. Dzangaliev was so impressed by the genius that he saved money and studied for ten years, until one day his dream came true and he studied under Vavilov; he went on to become Kazakhstan’s expert on wild apple diversity.

An example closer to home is the account of Vavilov collecting wild sunflower seed in Texas.  He brought the seed back to his staff of oilseed breeders who worked on crossing the sunflower with the cultivated Helianthus annuus, our common garden sunflower. One plant geneticist, Pustovoit, continued breeding sunflowers for thirty years, using that same wild relative. He developed a strain, a stable hybrid sunflower with unusually high levels of polyunsaturated oils that became an oilseed crop in the Soviet Union. Many years later, farmers from Texas, USA, came to the agricultural research station where Pustovoit’s daughter gave them seed to take back to Texas, where it now grows as a crop.

The food crops indigenous to the US include wild rice, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, tobaccos, low-bush blueberries and amaranths. Vavilov lectured in the US and spoke of crops unknown to his audience of American scientists, including tepary bean, maypops, maygrass, sumpweeds and chenopods, little barley and Chicksaw plums.  To learn more about these crops see another of Nabhan’s books, Renewing America’s Food Traditions.

One insight that Vavilov showed the world was that crops don’t grow in a vacuum where they are randomly attacked by insects and diseases. Vavilov looked at plant pathology from an evolutionary, geographic context. That was part of his fascination with what we now call biodiversity hotspots. Vavilov deduced that  “…those centers still held ancient diverse forms of crops that had co-evolved with pests and diseases over many millennia.”

Nabhan relates that to this day whenever there has been major crop failure caused by disease or insect pests, plant specialists have gone in search of the crop’s wild relatives and ancient landraces; somewhere in the world’s centers of diversity they have found the seeds of genetic resistance.  Although much diversity has been lost, farmers and scientists around the world are working to preserve food systems. Where Our Food Comes From is an urgent reminder to save traditional farming along with the seeds.

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