Where Our Food Comes From

Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine
By Gary Paul Nabhan; 266 pages, Shearwater Books, 2008

In Review

Before I moved to California, I’d seen only two types of potatoes, and naively believed there weren’t any more than that. Like most urban dwellers, I knew only the supermarket offerings of monoculture cash crops. When I first saw purple potatoes at a market in San Francisco, I felt outraged that someone had dyed them with food coloring, unaware that purple potatoes are but one of the nearly 600 varieties of potatoes available.

Gary Nabhan seems to have written his new book, Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine, for people like me, people unaware of the complexities of agriculture and what the abundance of food varieties means, not only at our dinner tables, but also politically and sociologically. As Nabhan writes: “The notion that the biological diversity in our food-producing landscapes serves as a bet-hedging strategy that contributes to our long-term food security is lost on many people.”

Nabhan constructs his book like a well-designed meal. The appetizer is the initial chapter, set in World War II. As millions of Russians were starving – more than 700,000 people starved in Leningrad alone – and the Nazis were advancing, Vavilov’s staff protected a vast store of seeds. The Nazis’ interest in genetics extended beyond their horrifying experiments on humans; Hitler, reports Nabhan, was also interested in practicing agricultural eugenics. While some Soviets were hiding the country’s art treasures, Vavilov’s dedicated crew was doing the same for the hundreds of thousands of seeds their leader had been collecting for decades.

For the main course, Nabhan retraces the trails Vavilov took during his fact-finding missions. Vavilov, who lived from 1887 to 1943 (when he succumbed to starvation while imprisoned by Stalin), traveled the globe documenting farmers’ experiences with various strains of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and, of course, collecting seeds. Throughout his journeys, Vavilov persevered as he faced political and personal obstacles, including visits to war-torn regions and several bouts of malaria.

In this incredible tale that leaves you wanting more, Nabhan spices up his narrative with sprinkles of historical detail, and shows history’s impact on food production and, subsequently, the food security of nations. For example, as the number of silk mills increased in Lebanon in the late 1880s, the region’s farmers abandoned their subsistence crops, planting silk-producing mulberry trees instead. Food that was once grown abundantly was now imported, and farmers paid for the food they once produced for themselves. History intervened again when a locust plague decimated the crops in 1915, leaving the Lebanese with no money to purchase their staple foods.

During Nabhan’s journeys, he sees things Vavilov never witnessed. He encounters changes inflicted by climate change, which is slowly forcing farmers to adjust the elevation at which they plants crops to compensate for the increase in temperature, and, in some cases, to completely abandon certain crops. And, as much damage as humans have wreaked with climate change, the effect of our influence doesn’t stop there: Nabhan cites, for example, “wasteful irrigation practices, salinization, groundwater depletion, surface water contamination, and over-allocation of surface water supplies” in Italy’s once fertile Po Valley. And beyond his personal observations, Nabhan presents facts that speak for themselves, such as that “90 percent of the diversity of locally adapted crop varieties of wheat has been lost in Italy since 1900,” and the alarming statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that “about three quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost over the last century.”

Nabhan is encouraged by the progress achieved, ironically, by people who are going backwards, as farmers return to some traditional methods employed by generations before them. A highly successful farmers’ market that now operates in downtown Beirut and several outlying centers brings urban consumers in direct contact with farmers, re-introducing local varieties of produce that might otherwise vanish.

It’s a credit to Nabhan’s writing that he can take a scientist unknown to most laymen and write such a tantalizing tale. Nabhan’s book is part history book, part travelogue, and part detailed scientific explanation of why our planet’s survival depends on maintaining and guarding the biodiversity of plant life. Not one of these ingredients is any less appealing than the others. Dig in and enjoy it.

—Audrey Webb

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