I just finished reading a new book by the prolific Gary Paul Nabhan, whose resume astounds me: He landed a half-million-dollar MacArthur Fellowship (aka “genius grant”) early in his career, and has written some 30 books since then, in addition to several teaching gigs and founding a movement or two. Heck, he even dabbles in folklore and poetry; this man is diverse! Fitting, then, that one of his obsessions is biodiversity.
The book is called Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine. Vavilov was an early 20th-century Russian plant geneticist whose work with seed collection and crop breeding was truly, well, seminal. He discovered that a given crop’s wild origin could be traced back to wherever that plant grew in the greatest diversity. This “centers of origin” idea helped him locate strains with inherent resistance to pests and diseases. He established some 400 research institutes and trekked to five continents to collect samples of thousands of wild plant species for a seed bank which he hoped would improve food security for his countrymen and others in years to come.
Basically, like his latest biographer, Vavilov was an extraordinarily talented man (a “bogatyr,” as this piece puts it). And for me, this is what makes his story so fascinating. You’d think a guy like that would be considered a national treasure, right? Or at least a faithful civil servant who deserves a decent pension? Nope, not in the long run. He died in a labor camp in January 1943, after three years of incarceration. And as Nabhan points out, the cruelest irony is how he perished: “Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov—the man who more than anyone else in history helped humankind appreciate where our food has come from—died from the side-effects of slow starvation.”
You see, genetics became a dangerous field in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, in part because of a man named Trofim Lysenko, an agronomist whose largely crackpot views fed Stalin’s suspicions about any science that suggested human nature wasn’t totally malleable. (And even though Vavilov’s work only dealt with plants, the notion that genes could provide organisms with different intrinsic qualities was seen as a threat to communist ideology.)
Nabhan doesn’t delve too deeply into politics in his portrait of Vavilov; that’s been done in other books. Instead, he retraces Vavilov’s footsteps, revisiting some of the places where the great scientist collected plant samples nearly a century ago: Central Asia, Italy, Lebanon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mexico, Colombia and the United States.
It’s a fascinating journey, though a sobering one. Nabhan notes that “the FAO estimates that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost over the last century,” and warns that “we are in a race against time to ensure that the remaining seed varieties on this earth are not extinguished like so many candles in a sudden gust.”
But Nabhan is also an optimist, it seems, and in the epilogue he dreams of a true “food democracy,” a system in which “all citizens can choose how to practice their right to feed themselves and their families an adequate supply of healthful, nutrient-rich, toxin-free, culturally appropriate foods.” The way to get there, he says, is not just by squirreling away seeds in Arctic vaults but also by investing in smaller-scale “on-farm conservation” in rural and indigenous cultures.