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Taking Food Plants for Granted

We commonly fail to appreciate the wonders that are part of everyday existence. I am not referring to electronic gadgets, but rather to the truly essential things -- water, shelter, medicine, food and breathable air, almost all of which are specifically plant related. For example, the bounty at the market is amazing. I literally pause while admiring the produce, especially in winter, far from the growing season, and silently give praise to the botanists who made it possible, and the connection extends far beyond the fresh fruits and vegetables. Those around me likely presume the old fellow is trying to remember his list, or perhaps how to get home :) Odds-on my fellow shoppers also have no idea who the explorers were or the associated risks and work that led to the marvelous fare. As an ethnobotanist, I do. We take our food for granted. Yet dedication and the discoveries, many of them accomplished in the last century, represent cultural treasures at least as important as any famous fine art for they allow us to eat better (more diversity) than at any time in history. No plants, no food, et cetera. No food, no people. Nor do the throngs know, or care, where the plants we depend on originated. Banana is native to SE Asia, wheat the Middle East, orange S China/Myanmar, potato and tomato South America, apple Kazakhstan, soybean Indonesia, et cetera. Only a handful of the plants we eat are native to North America. Few people would recognize the wild progenitors of these crops, assuming they still exist (given overpopulation and the resultant habitat destruction), nor understand the importance of genetic diversity or the significance of the centers of origin.

The selection of crop plants we use and depend on would be substantially diminished but for preeminent botanical explorers like Nikolai Vavilov, David Fairchild and Frank Meyer. More recently add to the list Charles Rick, Charlie Heiser and Jack Harlan. I vividly remember Harlan, who was on my doctoral committee at the Univ of Illinois, describe how Soviet agriculture had been so retarded by Stalinism and the misguided agronomist Lysenko that many of their tractors had to be kept running 24/7 for fear they could not be restarted. This was only about half a century ago and the prime reason the Soviet Union fell. Yes, the USSR collapsed because it was unable to grow and supply adequate food for its people. The Soviets had over-committed to military expenditure and embraced bad agronomic science. Don't believe me? Check the historic photos and written accounts paying special attention to the food lines. The Bolshevik state fell from within. A government that cannot feed its people is doomed.

Harlan was a softspoken gentleman and a student of the renown botanist/geneticist G. Ledyard Stebbins (Univ California, Berkley) and co-founder of the Crop Evolution Lab at the Univ of Illinois. Harlan's father was a plant breeder/explorer and friend of the extraordinary Russian agronomist and biogeographer Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Supremely talented, Vavilov was fluent in at least a dozen languages and proficient in others. When Jack was in high school (early 1930s) Vavilov stayed at Harlan's house in DC while visiting for a conference. This encounter inspired Jack to become a crop plant scientist himself. Unfortunately, after his training, Harlan was unable to collaborate with Vavilov in Russia as they had planned. Vavilov, the botanist who identified the centers of origin of cultivated plants, and who had devoted his life to preventing hunger, starved to death in 1943 at age 55 after being imprisoned by the tyrant Stalin. The surrounding story and literal self-sacrifice by Vavilov's colleagues to safeguard the world's largest food seed collection during the siege of Leningrad is incredibly gripping and tragic.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of crops check out The Food Explorer. The True Adventures of the Globe Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats, by David Stone (2018). It is an account of the life and times of David Fairchild. He too was a great man! If you give it a read, the next time you are at the market and see a Meyer lemon, Haas avocado, apricot, peach, kale, or any grain or pulse, or . . . you may appreciate the plant explorers who made your meal possible. Perhaps then the food plants will be less taken for granted. You might even pause in homage, like me. -- I will discuss food production and harvest (farmers and farming) in a near future post.


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