Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sourcing Seeds with Vavilov

Where our food comes from : retracing Nikolay Vavilov's quest to end famine / Gary Paul Nabhan
Washington: Island Press, c2009.
223 p.

I received this book from Island Press via its Canadian distributor, UBC Press. I was interested for two reasons, both for its theme of agricultural biodiversity and for the part that Russian scientist Nikolay Vavilov plays in this story. Also, it is one of Treehugger's 9 Must Read Books on Eating Well. I was not disappointed! Nabhan is an ethnobotanist, conservationist, farmer, and a prolific author, with many other titles I now want to read as well. Here he focuses on local seeds and regional agricultural practices as a vital resource in maintaining the world's food supply. In this book he's decided he will follow in the footsteps of Vavilov and see how agricultural biodiversity has changed since Vavilov's world travels in the early 1900's.

Nikolay Vavilov was a Russian scientist with a massive case of wanderlust and a brilliant mind. He was head of the Russian Department of Applied Botany and travelled around the world in the early years of the last century, researching seeds and local farming practices, and developing a theory of genetic plant origins known as Vavilov Centres of Diversity, still used in scientific circles. He was gathering plant genetic material for his comprehensive seed bank in Leningrad, the first in the world, intended to stockpile seed to avert worldwide famine in case of any regional crop failures. The seed bank suffered under the Siege of Leningrad in WWII -- while the Hermitage had all of its art treasures removed and protected elsewhere, the seed bank was left to its own devices. Stalin felt that the science being done there was elitist and not for the good of the people, and he also held a personal grudge against Vavilov. The scientists of the Department barricaded themselves inside the seed bank to protect it against the starving citizens of Leningrad, with one of the researchers actually dying of starvation in the midst of all the seeds. Vavilov himself was finally sent to a work camp by Stalin, where he died of starvation.

Gary Paul Nabhan retraces the wide ranging travels of Vavilov in order to measure the status of local agriculture and genetic diversity remaining in the areas Vavilov studied nearly a hundred years ago. What he found was that in most places, genetic diversity has diminished as agriculture has become more top-down: governments and organizations trying to increase crop yields neglected traditional farming practices and acclimatized seeds, and bought in to a Westernized, "scientific" method of using genetically modified and/or heavily pesticide reliant new crops. He makes a strong case for the necessity of returning to old folkways in growing and marketing local food sources.

Each chapter of the book takes him to a different locale, from North and South America, to Ethiopia, to Kazhakstan, among many others. It reads like an intriguing combination of biography and travel writing, alongside the fascinating science behind biodiversity and its ties to cultural diversity. Not only does he make a strong case for the necessity of crop diversity from the perspective of a secure world food supply, he also makes an emotional appeal: the beauty and the individuality of the many regions of the world he visits need agricultural security to remain distinct civilizations. Consider this locale -- would we want to lose this forever?

The fragrance of the Kazakh forest was unlike any I have ever known, for the pervasive smell of ripening and rotting apples and pears filled my nostrils. At my feet, russet reds, blushing pinks, vibrant roses, and creamy yellows mottled the ground, where wildlife had half consumed many of the fruit that make this forest so bountiful. I had arrived in the place that was the ultimate source of the apples and pears I had eaten since childhood, a place I had tried to imagine since I first read about these "wild apple forests" while still a student many years ago.

He details the many ways humanity gets in our own way when it comes to sustaining our food supplies. One of these things is war, as he recognizes when he visits the Levant, a region his family comes from:

When I arrived [in Lebanon] eight months after the "end" of the war, most of the major bridges between Beirut and Damascus were badly damaged or altogether impassable, and drive-by assassinations were still common. The Lebanese economy was in ruins, and a new virulent rust disease that was attacking grain crops threatened to change the crop mix forever. Nevertheless, I had no trouble finding a great deal to be hopeful about in Lebanon's food and farming systems, amid all the obvious tragedy. I am not sure that Vavilov left the country with such an optimistic impression. What he did describe, however, was the tragedy that occurs whenever a country trades away its food security for export markets of cash crops, leaving it to gain most of its staples from beyond its own borders... Yet Lebanon at the start of the twenty-first century is a sober reminder that war is the worst enemy of food biodiversity and nutritional security. Few scientific reports from anywhere in the world have adequately documented how warfare devastates agro-biodiversity and security, but no firsthand observer could doubt that grave effects are evident in every battle-scarred landscape.

Another way we imperil crop diversity is through meddling with plants from an economic, corporate standpoint. GMO corn has greatly affected Mexican crops, including the original mother of all corn varities, teosinte:

Unfortunately, GMOs have not only contaminated processed corn foods coming into the Sierra Madre, but there is growing speculation that they may have also contaminated the indigenous fields of diverse maize varieties there, as well. ... Pedro Turuseachi, a Tarahumara spokesperson with Chihuahua's Consultoria Técnica Comunitaria, had this to say about why the possible presence of transgenic corn is so threatening to his people: "Our seeds -- of our own maize varieties -- form the basis of any food sovereignty we have for our communities. Maize for us is much more than a food; it is part of what is sacred for us, part of our history, our currency, and our destiny."

The dynamics of natural hybridization between maize and teosinte are perhaps peculiar to Mexico and Guatemala, but genetic contamination of ancient cereal grains, vegetables, and fruits by transgenic cultivars is a new dynamic and one that is becoming increasingly commonplace. Farmers may temporarily enjoy higher yields when they adopt certain GMO crops, but more and more case studies indicate what they are losing, not just what they gain. Whether they are canola farmers in North America, sorghum farmers in Africa, or rice farmers in Asia, more food producers around the world now see that by uncritically adopting any transgenic crop that becomes available to them, they may lose control of the way their crops and certain weeds have positively interacted over many millennia.

This book is extremely readable: fascinating locales, heartbreaking biography and political machinations, and some beautiful photos. Reading it provides so much compelling scientific evidence of the ever increasing importance of being aware of just where our food comes from. Highly recommended.

** Some of the organizations mentioned in this book, many of which Nabhan is involved with, in case you want to look a little further into this topic**


Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry

Global Crop Diversity Trust

Renewing America's Food Traditions

Bioversity International

Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity Conservation

Conservation International

Native Seeds/SEARCH

Seed Savers Exchange

And a blog by Vavilov...


  1. What an interesting sounding book! Thanks for sharing the list from Treehugger I've read/own 4 of the books.

  2. This sounds like a super interesting book, Melanie! Thanks for the review.

  3. Thanks for this review! I'm already well on my way through reading those 9 books, and obviously I need to read this one too.

  4. This book looks really interesting. I put it in our Amazon shopping cart... just have to show it to Marc when he gets home. :)

    And speaking, I imagine you would enjoy this post that I did today:


    It does not capture the Austen voice perfectly. And I'm sure some of it doesn't even make sense! But it was sure fun to write, even if I'd rather have been napping at the time. :)

    Take care!

  5. Ok, I've seen this book around and have avoided it as just another food book, but now I am going to have to read it because of your great review!

  6. Thanks for the mention of the Vaviblog, which I look after. We would welcome you and any readers to join the conversation there.

    BTW, I have a feeling that Conrad's innocuous (and essentially content-free) post above mine is comment spam. You may want to look into that.

  7. Jeremy - I love the Vaviblog; great idea!
    And thanks for the heads up, I'd missed that comment! :)


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