Where Our Food Comes From (revisited)

I had the good fortune to hear Gary Paul Nabhan speak to graduate students at WSU Mt Vernon Experiment Station. Students were responsible for organizing a fall presentation and they chose one of my heroes. You can read my book review August 2011.

The student who introduced Nabhan spoke passionately about how the eminent ethnobotanist’s books had  inspired her to choose plant breeding as a career. His lyrical prose was both scientific and colorful. The stories woven throughout kept her interest.

Nabhan once wrote that he learned and remembered so much more through stories. If you read Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine, published in 2009, you just might be able to imagine the almost extinct apple forests of Kazakhstan, the reemergence of teff in the Ethiopian highlands, and the magnificent Pamir Mountains where climate change is having dramatic effects on which grain varieties farmers can cultivate.

Nabhan was able to retrace several of Vavilov’s expeditions because the Russian botanist left copious notes, maps, and photos of people. He said that this story is particularly fascinating to a new generation of plant breeders. (The audience was part grey-haired locals and part young graduate students, many of them women.)

Vavilov was determined to end famine by searching the world for seed for Russian farmers to use during droughts and other environmental challenges. During the 1920’s and 30’s V. collected seeds from five continents on fifty expeditions, and directed another fifty. He was the first to recognize the possibility of the disappearance of crops and the urgency to protect cultivated crop varieties. Because he kept such extensive notes Nabhan was able to use these as a benchmark and track the changes since Vavilov’s time.

His approach was not extractive; instead Vavilov was a strong believer in regional farming wisdom. He was committed to documenting the farming techniques and implements along with collecting seeds. He was adamant that crop biodiversity required traditional farmers to continue practicing. He took 4,000 photos in his travels. One of the tools he used to locate origins of crops was linguistics.

Farmer-bred seeds still dominate rural areas worldwide. Many traditional subsistence farmers don’t trust governments or corporations. They also don’t try to maintain heirloom crops with set characteristics. Seed selection is not static; rather, food security comes from fostering landraces.

Nabhan witnessed an ancient technique of backcrossing with wild relatives in Sinaloa, Mexico where a farmer recognized teosinte, the progenitor of maize, growing wild across the creek. Each season he grew seed corn there to catch a boost from the pollen of teosinte. (The wild relative could pollinate the crop, but the timing was such that the cultivated crop pollen did not genetically affect the wild corn.) This backcrossing offered genetic variation that enhanced the crop’s adaptation. Farmers from 100 miles around would practice intentional ingression by renting this field to rejuvenate their seed crop of cultivated corn and return home with healthier seed.

Resurgence of ancient crops: In the face of drought and famine, Ethiopian farmers chose to grow teff rather than grow wheat and rye varieties that were plagued with diseases. Since then the tough, little-known crop has experienced resurgence.

Nahban’s advice for resilience strategies is choose the best of heirloom varieties and continue breeding them for resilience.

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.