The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientists Struggle to Preserve the Worlds Harvest

The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientists Struggle to Preserve the Worlds Harvest

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by Susan Dworkin
     
 

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In 1999, a terrifying new form of stem rust--spotted in Uganda and dubbed "UG99"--quickly turned robust golden fields into dark, tangled ruins. For decades plant scientists had bred wheat varieties with rust-resistant genes, but these genes did not work against UG99. Since rust migrates high in the atmosphere, it could spread from country to country, continent to…  See more details below

Overview

In 1999, a terrifying new form of stem rust--spotted in Uganda and dubbed "UG99"--quickly turned robust golden fields into dark, tangled ruins. For decades plant scientists had bred wheat varieties with rust-resistant genes, but these genes did not work against UG99. Since rust migrates high in the atmosphere, it could spread from country to country, continent to continent. Breeders worried that UG99 would soon reach India and Pakistan, where 50 million small farmers produced 20% of the global wheat supply. If that happened, China, the worlds largest wheat producer, might be next, and it would be only a matter of time before it reached American wheat fields.
Breeders everywhere began searching wheat germplasm collections for sources of resistance. The largest collection was at the Center for Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) in Mexico, developed by the brilliant Danish scientist Bent Skovmand. For three decades, Skovmand amassed, multiplied, and documented thousands of wheat varieties. He served as an advisor on wheat genetic resources to dozens of countries, and hunted for seeds that would contain the genes to protect the harvest from plagues like UG99 and the stresses of global warming.From the mountains of Tibet to the jungles of Mexico, he trekked into fields to consult with farmers. In an era when corporations and governments often jealously guarded breeding information, Skovmand fought to keep his seed bank a center for free, open scientific exchange.
By telling the story of Skovmands work and that of his colleagues, The Viking in the Wheat Field sheds a welcome light on an agricultural sector--plant genetic resources--on which we are all crucially dependent.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Illuminating biography of Bent Skovmand (1945-2007), a prescient Scandinavian scientist who devoted his career to amassing, categorizing and genetically developing a global seed bank that could save the world from famine. Journalist Dworkin (The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust, 2000, etc.) frames the story of Skovmand's life with the 1999 outbreak of a new strain of stem rust, "Ug99," which decimated fields across the globe. Ug99 demonstrated to farmers and researchers everywhere the importance of "plant genetic resources," Skovmand's life work. Developments in cross-breeding and selective gene modification enable geneticists to create varieties of seeds that have built-in resistance to biological predators. When a strain like Ug99 emerges, researchers turn to germplasm, or seed, collections-like the one at the Center for Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) in Mexico, where Skovmand worked for close to 30 years-to find the one genetic variation that is capable of resisting it. Then they breed it and provide it to farmers worldwide. Isolating the exact kind of wheat that contains the specific gene required is painstaking work that requires patience, persistence and total dedication. Skovmand possesses these qualities in abundance, and with a fiery passion for feeding the world's hungry, he was an able advocate and technician. He worked tirelessly against the encroaching bureaucracy for fieldwork funding and a free global exchange of ideas and seeds. But years passed without a protected and inventoried global germplasm collection, and local collections in Iraq, Syria, Mexico and elsewhere were compromised by a lack of resources, war or natural disaster.Not until recently did the political community admit the need for a global seed bank, and in February 2008 the Svalbard Doomsday Vault opened in northern Norway, housing millions of carefully protected seeds. In vivid language, Dworkin presents Skovmand's legacy as ample reason for a new generation of genetic researchers to take the cause. Agent: Robert Levine/Levine Plotkin & Menin
Peter Pringle

Susan Dworkin has found a delightful way to tell the alarming story of the fragility of the global wheat crop. She leads us expertly and enthusiastically into Bent Skovmand's strange, infrequently penetrated domain of plant breeding and international seed banks, a world in which unsung scientists search and save exotic plant germplasm to protect the staffs of life against pests, plagues and corporate raiders. As the Viking himself warns in Dworkin's book, 'If the seeds disappear, so could your food. So could you.'
Booklist Donna Seaman

Dworkin vividly portrays Skovmand and a remarkable group of similarly ardent plant protectors; crisply relates little-known yet compelling, frequently dicey tales of agricultural discovery and rescue; and explains with passion and acuity why it's so very important to preserve the planet's plant genetics.
Per Pinstrup-Andersen

Thanks to Bent Skovmand and scientists of his ilk, most of us take it for granted that there will be food on table when needed. The Viking in the Wheat Field is about the importance of protecting nature and its biodiversity, and improving the seeds available to us, so that 3 billion more people may eat 40 years from now.
author of Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Rowan Jacobsen

An eye-opening look into the little-known world of gene banks and crop breeding, and a poignant reminder that the real guardians of our food security are not armies or transnational corporations, but a handful of tireless scientists who have labored for decades to keep us one step ahead of famine.
author of Fruitless Fall and The Living Shore Rowan Jacobsen

An eye-opening look into the little-known world of gene banks and crop breeding, and a poignant reminder that the real guardians of our food security are not armies or transnational corporations, but a handful of tireless scientists who have labored for decades to keep us one step ahead of famine.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802719775
Publisher:
Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
11/17/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
File size:
2 MB

Meet the Author

Susan Dworkin worked briefly for the United States Department of Agriculture during the Kennedy Administration before becoming a journalist, covering foreign aid projects in Iran and Israel. She went on to a career writing social history through the biographies of Bess Myerson, Edith Hahn Beer, and others, but she never lost her fascination for agriculture and its love-hate relationship with technology. For ten years she was a contributing editor to Ms. Magazine and has been a frequent contributor to Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and other national publications.
Susan Dworkin worked briefly for the United States Department of Agriculture during the Kennedy Administration before becoming a journalist, covering foreign aid projects in Iran and Israel. She went on to a career writing social history through the biographies of Bess Myerson, Edith Hahn Beer, and others, but she never lost her fascination for agriculture and its love-hate relationship with technology. For ten years she was a contributing editor to Ms. Magazine and has been a frequent contributor to Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, and other national publications.

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The Viking in the Wheat Field: A Scientist's Struggle to Preserve the World's Harvest 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bga_reviews More than 1 year ago
Price at B&N Amazon paperback $11.86 $8.22 ebook $14.30 $2.73 It's no wonder readers get outraged at the ebooks when they are quite a bit more expensive than the paperback, and the equivalent Amazon books. While it sounds like an interesting book, the Nookbook price is a real turn-off.