Thursday, March 16, 2017

Never Out of Season

Never Out of Season by Rob Dunn
Little, Brown and Company: 3/14/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316260725

Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future by Rob Dunn is a highly recommended discourse on the importance of diversity in our increasingly genetically standardized crops grown worldwide.

We used to know what season it was and where a person lived based on what food was available. Now agriculture has been globalized and homogenized. Food crops are breed for taste, productiveness and hardiness - and then that selected variety is the one relied upon almost exclusively. We are standardizing crops. Now the taste is always the same, rather than greatly differing between different types of, for example, bananas.

Dunn points out that the Irish potato famine "was not the last ancient plague but rather the first truly modern one. And whereas the threat from the potato famine was regional, the threat we now face, in our far more connected economy, is global." In 1845 the Irish were more dependent on the potato than anyone else, and when disease we call late blight hit the potato crop, it caused the famine. With the standardization of crops we are setting ourselves up for the same kind of event. A single blight, disease, pathogen could at any moment attack a specific crop and destroy it. "We need ever more food from each acre and so are bound to those crops that produce the most. Just as it was for the Irish, each time a child is born our reliance on our most productive crops increases. Corn in North America. Wheat in Europe. Cassava in Africa. Rice in Asia."

The problem is that with reduced diversity of crops, we are setting ourselves up for failure because now when a pathogen attacks a crop it has the potential to wipe it out completely. We no longer have the many different varieties grown in different places so if one variety is wiped out, the entire crop could no longer exist. The key is to keep the wild relatives of our crops available. We need all the species alive and their seeds available as a key to combat any future plagues. We are reducing the number of varieties of crops we depend upon for food when we need to be protecting the varieties in order to protect our future food supplies.

Dunn covers a variety of crops including bananas, coffee, cacao, wheat, corn, cassava, and potatoes. He also tells about the forward thinking of Soviet botanist Nikolai Vavilov who began collecting a wide variety of seeds in the 1940s and those who understood the need to protect the seed bank during WWII. Dunn extensively discusses the "doomsday vault" in Norway where seeds are preserved against a future apocalypse.

Never Out of Season is well-researched and contains extensive notes for each chapter and the sources cited. There is also an index. Even though it is a scholarly work, it is very accessible for anyone who is interested in agriculture, history, and food science.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

No comments: