Books & Arts | Published:

Back to the roots of crop farming

Nature volume 456, pages 707708 (11 December 2008) | Download Citation


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


Island Press: 2008. 266 pp. $24.95, £21.50 15972639909781597263993

In 1941, when German and Finnish troops threatened to besiege the Russian city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Soviet leaders hurried to authorize the evacuation of the art collection from the city's Hermitage museum. Another extraordinary treasure, then the world's largest collection of more than 380,000 food crop samples housed at Leningrad's All-Union Institute of Agricultural Sciences, did not receive such privileged treatment; it survived the 1941–44 Leningrad blockade only through the virtue of committed individuals. Clearly, society places different values on the heritage content of the art museum and the seed bank.

In Where Our Food Comes From, Gary Paul Nabhan, a conservationist and research social scientist at the University of Arizona, spotlights crop diversity as a neglected but vital cultural resource. He does so by chronicling the journeys of Nikolay Vavilov, Russia's famous geneticist and botanist, and creator of the Leningrad seed bank. Vavilov was the first to identify the world's centres of crop diversity — a concept that, decades later, was developed by conservation biologists into what we now call biodiversity hotspots or conservation targets. Based on narratives from Vavilov's expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s and the author's own travels to retrace Vavilov's steps, Nabhan looks at changes in agricultural biodiversity.

Amazon agriculture benefits from crop diversity. Image: V. ENGLEBERT/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES

The journeys cover nine regions of the globe. Each chapter highlights a specific land-use system, such as the wild apple forests of Kazakhstan; the diverse date cultivation in the oases of the Maghreb in north Africa; the traditional milpa cropping system in Mexico, based on maize (corn) and beans; or the forest gardens of the Amazon basin in South America. Nabhan observes that, almost everywhere, crop diversity has strongly and rapidly declined during the time between Vavilov's and his own visits. Both global- and regional-scale processes are held responsible for the homogenization of crops. For example, melting glaciers account for a depletion of hydrological sources in Tajikistan's Pamir mountains, which damages traditional cropping systems. In northern Italy's Po valley, wasteful irrigation practices and mechanized high-performance agriculture have displaced traditional land uses. In the Middle East, political unrest and the legacy of colonialism have disrupted ancient farming systems. In Kazakhstan, economic growth has driven urban sprawl, threatening agricultural land close to cities.

Yet Nabhan's perspective is positive. He stresses the value of diverse crop varieties and the cultural traditions of land use and food preparation — for pragmatic reasons and as a cultural heritage that provides humankind with pleasure. He presents promising initiatives to recover crop diversity, from the rehabilitation of farmers' markets in Lebanon to efforts to renew local Hopi food systems in Arizona. And he shows how rich crop diversity and traditional seed selection and distribution support adaptation to changing environmental or societal conditions. I was fascinated by the story of how Colombian peasants have selected varieties of coca plants — the leaves of which contain cocaine alkaloids — that are resistant to the aerially sprayed herbicide used in the war on drugs. These resistant varieties have arisen through farmer-based selection, adaptation and informal dissemination of coca cuttings, all without any genetic engineering.

Where Our Food Comes From is a marked critique of the worldwide simplification of agricultural systems. It pins its hopes on local, traditional agriculture and is sceptical of top-down approaches to increasing food production, such as calls for another 'green revolution'. Many of its conclusions coincide with those reached by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, which concluded that the focus on maximum agricultural commodity production was responsible for the depletion of natural capital.

There are two opposing sides in the debate on how to increase food security. One side, which includes Nabhan, endorses the support of small-scale, low-output agriculture that is highly diverse. Among other examples, Nabhan uses the case of Ethiopian wheat varieties, which proved invaluable in the fight against the virulent leaf rust fungus, to show thattraditional, allegedly outmoded forms of land use may help to solve modern environmental problems. The opposing side advocates modern, technology-intensive, high-performance forms of agriculture that safeguard large parts of the world's food supply today, but are not resilient and depend on significant inputs of fossil fuels that may become expensive in the future.

Nabhan notes the often overlooked contributions of traditional ecological knowledge to sustainable food production. After reading the book, major questions arise. Do locally domesticated plants have an archival function that provides genetic varieties for modern plant breeding, and should they thus be conserved in their remote centres of origin? Or can they be used on a larger scale in intensive agricultural landscapes? The integration of traditional and modern practices into agricultural systems that are productive yet sustainable, consideration of the needs of small-scale farmers and maintenance of diverse ecosystems will all remain conflict-laden — but they represent crucial challenges in the quest to feed the world.

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  1. Tobias Plieninger heads a group on ecosystem services at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jägerstrasse 22/23, 10117 Berlin, Germany.

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