Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine

Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine

by Gary Paul Nabhan

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The future of our food depends on tiny seeds in orchards and fields the world over. In 1943, one of the first to recognize this fact, the great botanist Nikolay Vavilov, lay dying of starvation in a Soviet prison. But in the years before Stalin jailed him as a scapegoat for the country’s famines, Vavilov had traveled over five continents, collecting hundreds of…  See more details below


The future of our food depends on tiny seeds in orchards and fields the world over. In 1943, one of the first to recognize this fact, the great botanist Nikolay Vavilov, lay dying of starvation in a Soviet prison. But in the years before Stalin jailed him as a scapegoat for the country’s famines, Vavilov had traveled over five continents, collecting hundreds of thousands of seeds in an effort to outline the ancient centers of agricultural diversity and guard against widespread hunger. Now, another remarkable scientist—and vivid storyteller—has retraced his footsteps. In Where Our Food Comes From, Gary Paul Nabhan weaves together Vavilov’s extraordinary story with his own expeditions to Earth’s richest agricultural landscapes and the cultures that tend them. Retracing Vavilov’s path from Mexico and the Colombian Amazon to the glaciers of the Pamirs in Tajikistan, he draws a vibrant portrait of changes that have occurred since Vavilov’s time and why they matter. In his travels, Nabhan shows how climate change, free trade policies, genetic engineering, and loss of traditional knowledge are threatening our food supply. Through discussions with local farmers, visits to local outdoor markets, and comparison of his own observations in eleven countries to those recorded in Vavilov’s journals and photos, Nabhan reveals just how much diversity has
already been lost. But he also shows what resilient farmers and scientists in many regions are doing to save the remaining living riches of our world. It is a cruel irony that Vavilov, a man who spent his life working to foster nutrition, ultimately died from lack of it. In telling his story, Where Our Food Comes From brings to life the intricate relationships among culture, politics, the land, and the future of the world’s food.

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Editorial Reviews

NPR "Splendid Table" - Lynne Rosetto

Any book with ethnobotanist Nabhan’s name on it is going to be worth a read but this one’s a grabber. A thriller, a tragedy and self-help – all-in-one.

author of The World Without Us and Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World - Alan Weisman

"Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan has created something here as original as a new species: a book that is equal parts biography, pilgrimage, research, and revelation. Led around the planet by the ghost of his scientific and spiritual muse, Nabhan in turn leads us to a course of action we can actually perform: demand the food we were meant to eat. This moving, often harrowing, always eloquent account shows that by putting humanity back into ecology and vice-versa, much of this world could and would fall back into place."
author of Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets - Deborah Madison

"Gary Nabhan's travels in the footsteps of the brilliant Nikolay Vavilov make for fascinating reading. But this book is more than a journey into the past; it is look at the future. Vavilov's compelling ideas about famine and Nabhan's exploration of current threats to our food supply—from climate change to loss of biodiversity—make Where Our Food Comes From a must-read."
author of One River and Light at the Edge of the World - Wade Davis

"A riveting account of an extraordinary Russian plant scientist who traveled five continents in search of crop diversity and its importance in staving off famine, told by a master scientist and storyteller of today. Shining through the travels of both is a critical insight: that safeguarding our food supply depends ultimately on our ability to preserve the vitality of diverse cultures the world over."
President, The Land Institute - Wes Jackson

"Biology has its true martyr in N.I. Vavilov, starved to death by Stalin and his henchmen for his rich and necessary insights plus his indefatigable work devoted to discovering, cataloguing and storing the diversity among and within crop plants. By traveling himself, Gary Nabhan has given us a narrative of Vavilov's physical and intellectual journey sure to keep readers up past bedtime."

"Where Our Food Comes From is a marked critique of the worldwide simplification of agricultural systems. It pins its hopes on local, traditional agriculture and is sceptical of top-down approaches to increasing food production, such as calls for another 'green revolution'."

"In this part travelogue, part history, and part treatise, Nabhan ... eloquently describes how current agricultural practices may be helping to erase the diversity that Vavilov was so anxious to preserve...This work would be an excellent resource for discussions and debates."
The Washington Post Book World

"The book pays homage to a martyr who understood that crop varieties must be preserved for the future food security of the human race. As Nabhan points out, the risk today is no less than in Vavilov's time, and it may be greater."

"In this part travelogue, part history, and part treatise, Nabhan ... eloquently describes how current agricultural practices may be helping to erase the diversity that Vavilov was so anxious to preserve...This work would be an excellent resource for discussions and debates."

"Mixing the compulsively readable insights of a well-researched biography with the painstaking details of a scientific treatise, Nabhan offers a historical and contemporary framework for determining the viability of sustainable agriculture."

"Fascinating look at the origins of our food and shows how climate change, free trade policies, genetic engineering, and loss of traditional knowledge are threatening our food supply."
Science News

"Equal parts travelog, biography and botanical history, Nabhan breathes life into the exploits of Russia's botanical adventurer."

"9 Must Read Books on Eating Well"
Yahoo Green

"In this beautifully told nonfiction narrative, Nabhan shows how climate change, economics, genetic engineering, and tiny seeds all over the world will affect our future."
NPR "Splendid Table"

"Any book with ethnobotanist Nabhan's name on it is going to be worth a read but this one's a grabber. A thriller, a tragedy and self-help—all in one."
Washington Post Book World

"The book pays homage to a martyr who understood that crop varieties must be preserved for the future food security of the human race. As Nabhan points out, the risk today is no less than in Vavilov's time, and it may be greater."

The Scientist

"Where Our Food Comes From is an urgent reminder that we must work to save not only the seeds that feed us but the farmers who grow and select them—those 'vernacular plant breeders' on whom the long-term vitality of those seeds and a diverse agriculture depends."
Earth Island Journal

"In this incredible tale that leaves you wanting more, Nabhan spices up his narrative with sprinkles of historical detail, and shows history's impact on food production and, subsequently, the food security of nations…part history book, part travelogue, and part detailed scientific explanation of why our planet's survival depends on maintaining and guarding the biodiversity of plant life. Not one of these ingredients is any less appealing than the others. Dig in and enjoy it."
Bloomsbury Review

"A blend of travelogue and biography, Nabhan's book is a sobering reminder that while food is necessary for our survival, it is not always easy to come by, nor is access to food completely under our control."

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Where Our Food Comes From

Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine

By Gary Paul Nabhan


Copyright © 2009 Gary Paul Nabhan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-003-3


The Art Museum and the Seed Bank

During the White Nights of 1941—around the time of the summer solstice, when the twilight lingers beautifully and indefinitely in the skies of the northernmost latitudes—Hitler's forces first crossed from Poland into the Soviet Union, with their sights set on taking Leningrad. Soviet military intelligence was well aware of the seemingly endless caravans of German and Finnish troops, tanks, and artillery that were on the move, and surmised that those forces could converge on the city by summer's end. Stalin and his generals feared that if the German and Finnish forces were to take control of Leningrad—old Saint Petersburg—they would deal economic, strategic, and symbolic blows to the Soviets and their allies, for more than any other in the nation, that city was home to considerable monetary as well as artistic wealth.

On July 15, 1941, Stalin authorized an emergency evacuation of what the Soviets considered to be the city's most priceless treasures, those they believed the Nazis sought to confiscate and control for their own purposes. The rest of the world held its breath while the fate of those treasures was being decided by the head-on clash between two of the greatest armies ever assembled on the planet.

Most Western intellectuals were particularly concerned with the safety of the extraordinary art collections held at the Hermitage, one of the world's oldest and largest museums of human history and culture. Well over two million paintings, sculptures, coins, jewelry, and artifacts were housed there in the six hundred rooms of the Winter Palace, built by the czars in the heart of Leningrad.

While Stalin had been deliberating how to authorize an evacuation without causing panic in the population or admitting his own vulnerability, the keepers of those cultural treasures in Leningrad had already taken action. It took but two days after Hitler's invasion of the country for the Hermitage director, Iosif Orbeli, to initiate a plan for emptying Russia's greatest art museum. He recruited not only his curators, but also hundreds of artists, historians, students, and laborers. With the utmost urgency, they would have to take roughly a million paintings out of their frames, label them and roll them up or pin them down in boxes, and cushion them in packing material so that they could be hidden away. In a mere six days, more than a million and a half works of art were readied for secret storage in vaults hidden in the Hermitage basement, in a nearby cathedral, and in the hinterlands of the Russian steppe. Before dawn on the morning of July 6, 1941, a half million paintings, drawings, frescoes, artifacts, gems, vessels, and ornaments from the Hermitage were boarded onto the first train leaving Leningrad, headed to sanctuaries in a locality known only to a few Soviet officials. On July 10, another seven hundred thousand masterpieces, filling fifty-three Pullman cars, were sent toward the village of Sverdlovsk some 2,500 kilometers away. There they would spend the next three years cloistered in a Catholic church, sequestered in an art gallery, or sentenced to the death-tainted basement of the Ipiatev Mansion, where the family of Czar Nicholas II had been shot almost three decades before. The best and brightest of the Hermitage's conservation staff were dispatched to stand watch over the collections in Sverdlovsk, to protect them from fires, looters, and other potential dangers.

The interpreters and guides at the Hermitage today love to detail how successful those efforts were in safeguarding some of the greatest masterpieces of the Greek, Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance eras. They seldom if ever mention, however, another priceless world-class collection of our shared heritage that lay just a few blocks away, unheralded, on Saint Isaac's Square.

That second treasure trove harbored—and harbors still—more than 380,000 living, breathing samples of seeds, roots, and fruits of some 2,500 species of food crops that had been collected by Russia's world-class cadre of plant explorers who had worked for the Bureau of Applied Botany since 1894. Those seeds came in all colors, sizes, and shapes, some dull-coated while others glistened like jewels, as if hinting at a more priceless bounty of diversity still out in the fields of peasant farmers around the world. The tubers, roots, and bulbs came in all sorts of textures, from knobby and gnarled to as smooth and burnished as a clay pot shaped on a wheel, glazed, then fired in a kiln. The myriad fruits exuded nearly every fragrance imaginable to a perfume chemist—musky, fermented, citric, and floral. The fruits and nuts came in all kinds of arrangements, from cascading clusters of berries to the geometric wonders of pineapples and pine cones. Most of them were not only good to gaze at, like the art in the Hermitage, but exceedingly good to eat.

That treasure had myriad potential uses: The seeds could be multiplied and distributed to farmers, who could grow them to feed their families; selections of seeds could be used by plant breeders to improve the disease or pest resistance of more vulnerable varieties whose susceptibility was leading to famines or food shortages; some deeply rooted varieties were useful for soil erosion control and for the restoration of damaged landscapes; still others were key to unlocking the stories of where our food originally came from, helping us to elucidate the origins of agriculture and the earliest domestication of plants on several continents. Some seeds had remarkable stories associated with them, and all had genetic histories embedded within their seed coats. Most of the seeds were priceless, in the sense that they could not easily be re-collected or replaced, for the agricultural landscapes from which they had been derived had changed dramatically over the previous century. They represented dynamic populations of plants that shifted and evolved through place and time—if they were lucky enough to avoid political and physical upheavals—and, for that reason, were all the more irreplaceable.

Yet few Russian residents passing by the seed bank hidden within the bowels of a stodgy building on Saint Isaac's Square ever fathomed its paramount significance to human survival, let alone its uniqueness as a living record of some of the greatest achievements made by the diverse cultures of this planet. In 1941, even fewer of the artists, intellectuals, politicians, and bureaucrats distraught over the impending fate of the Hermitage could have imagined that the German troops engaged in Operation Northern Light were just as eager to control this genetic repository of seeds as they were to capture and sell off the artistic treasures housed in the Winter Palace.

Despite the damage done to Leningrad during the Blokada that began that September—a siege that lasted for nine hundred days and eliminated 1.5 million human lives from that bleak landscape—the building on Saint Isaac's Square that housed that priceless bank of the world's seeds miraculously survived. It has remained on the square to this day, harboring both seeds and scientists associated with what's known as the N. I. Vavilov AllRussian Scientific Research Institute of Plant Industry. The institute is nicknamed VIR by the relatively few Russians alive today who recognize its vital place in history and honor the memory of its charismatic founder, Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov (1887–1943). Vavilov's legacy is more than just the seeds he collected from around the world, for what he most valued were the seeds that remained in a peasant's field, adapting and changing, along with the traditional knowledge of where, when, and how to plant them.

My friends at VIR cannot tell the story of this seed legacy without tears welling up, for their story ultimately leads to the fate of the seed bank that sits below their offices today. Although I had met a director of VIR in Rome in the 1980s while working as a consultant to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), I didn't get to VIR itself until the spring of 2006. I went to Saint Petersburg then with an old friend, Kent Whealy, cofounder of the Seed Savers Exchange and recipient of the Vavilov Medal in honor of work he had done to conserve heirloom seed stocks and bring them back to our tables. Over the years, Kent and I had heard from Russian friends something of what had occurred at VIR during the darkest hours of the Siege of Leningrad. But we both wanted to hear the stories told in the place where they occurred—the heart of Saint Petersburg—by the very people who best knew Vavilov and those he had entrusted with keeping his seeds alive.

As our colleagues reminded us, in 1941, none of the support offered to the Hermitage staff was offered to those in charge of Vavilov's seed bank and the farms in the surrounding countryside—known as plant introduction stations—where the seeds were periodically grown out and replenished. Yet, from what Vavilov's staff knew of the strong German interest in eugenics, they could not imagine that the Nazi bureaucracy did not realize the importance of their genetic repository. As German and Finnish forces drove toward the city, the VIR staff feared that the Nazis would confiscate whatever seeds were available in the plant introduction stations associated with VIR's mission. The staff was at least able to hide some of the Saint Isaac's seeds at an experimental farm adjacent to Catherine the Great's palace in the suburb of Pushkin, just outside of Leningrad. But no staff was granted safe passage away from the fray. VIR's employees were to remain at their desks, continuing to do the work they had been assigned, as if neither war nor any other pressure was plaguing them.

By the end of the first autumn of the Blokada, Leningrad had been fully surrounded, and no food or fuel could reach the millions of Russians remaining in the city. While artillery fire escalated, food supplies dwindled to a thirty-day supply and were strictly rationed— down to 125 grams per person, or about a quarter pound of bread daily. Then the harshest and bitterest of winters set in, leaving the stranded masses with no heating oil or coal, little firewood, limited electricity, and, in most homes, no running water. Once grain and sugar supplies were depleted, families were given rations of mutton guts, malt flour, cellulose, and calf skins; both their health and their hope began to deteriorate.

By February of 1942, at least two hundred thousand people had died from starvation in Greater Leningrad or from the illnesses that pounced on the crippled immunity of the hungry. Despite those losses and their own lack of safety, many in Leningrad tried to continue their normal work, taking one day at a time. Those who had volunteered for the evacuation of the Hermitage could at least feel satisfied that they had done all that was possible to protect their city's most enduring works of art so that they might be enjoyed by future generations.

Much of that other great collection remained in grave danger, however. The extraordinary bank of living seeds that Vavilov had built and nurtured over the previous quarter century had been left exceedingly vulnerable. Reports had come in that the seeds left in the plant introduction stations in the Ukraine and Crimea had already been seized by the Germans; it was later learned that Heinz Brücher, a German geneticist, had sequestered them away at the Grannagh Castle in Austria. At the same time, even the portion of VIR's holdings that had been taken to the experimental station at Pushkin stood in harm's way. Pushkin was being shelled regularly, and the "Road of Life" leading beyond the city limits across the ice of Lake Lagoda was under such attack that it was renamed the "Road of Death."

In a daring move, the caretakers of the seeds loaded the portion of the collections held in Pushkin onto twenty trucks, whose drivers managed to pass through the German lines pretending to be peasants delivering grain to other German troops. That convoy of seeds eventually arrived, undetected, at the University of Tartu Experimental Station in Estonia in the summer of 1942. Those seeds thus fortuitously escaped the battle, but they could not escape the war. In the fall of 1944, the German army seized them in Estonia and began to pirate them off to Lithuania.

Unbeknownst to the VIR staff remaining in Leningrad, the life of their mentor Vavilov was then in as much peril as the seeds he had collected. For reasons I will later elaborate, Russia's greatest scientist had been taken as a political prisoner—not by the Nazis but by his own government—and was kept from public view while the Soviet government continued to issue press releases that he was simply helping Stalin and Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko with a new strategy to feed the people. Although none of his coworkers had heard from him or of him since his departure for an "important meeting in Moscow" in the summer of 1940, they remained steadfast in their efforts to safeguard the seed bank. Even while starving, they demonstrated as much dedication to their mission as did as their counterparts in Sverdlovsk.

The only difference—a critical one—was that Stalin supported the evacuation of the Hermitage but considered the seed bank to be a costly indulgence of "bourgeois science." Although the Nazis could see the value for future plant breeding of controlling the world's largest seed bank, Stalin's Soviet cronies looked at the state support of the seed bank as a tremendous financial burden that had not offered much in return. Stalin had jailed Vavilov and dozens of other scientists for being elitists and traitors whose research had paid few dividends to the Russian peasantry or to the state itself.

The staff remaining in VIR's building on the square continued to work, with virtually no government support. They feared that the hungry masses lurking in the streets outside might attempt to break into their stores and consume the bags of wheat, barley, beans, and peas that the staff had hoped would provide the stock to feed future generations. So they barricaded themselves inside the stout walls of their building on Saint Isaac's Square and stood watch over the living collections that they hoped would help Russia and the rest of the world recover, should the war ever end. The workers, led by Abraham Kameraz and Olga Voskresenkia, divided the most valuable of the four hundred thousand seed collections into duplicate samples and put them into boxes for hiding at different locations. Kameraz personally convinced a small tactical unit of the Red Army how important it was to everyone's future to remove a set of these seeds to another building off Saint Isaac's Square.

The ensuing tragedy has often been recounted to scientists visiting VIR, but hearing it in person still sickened and silenced Kent and me. The scientists and curators locked themselves into the dank, unheated building, guarding the other set of seeds as well as all of their potatoes in the dark, damp conditions of the near-freezing basement. Numb with cold and stricken with hunger, the staff took shifts caretaking the seeds around the clock. Nine of Vavilov's most dedicated coworkers slowly starved to death or died of disease rather than eat the seeds that were under their care. They were not alone. Over seven hundred thousand citizens of Leningrad had died from hunger by the spring of 1944, when the siege finally ended.

Perhaps it is fortunate that the starving seed guardians never learned how close their building was to being seized by the Nazis, for such news might have broken their spirits and weakened their tenacity. Unbeknownst to any outsiders, the inner circle of Nazi strategists had early on targeted the Russian seed bank as being a far more important collection to capture than that of the art they believed to be still within the Hermitage. As soon as Hitler set his mind on invading Russia in 1941, he established a special tactical unit of the S.S.—the Russland-Sammelcommando—to take control of the seed bank and retrieve its living riches for future use by the Third Reich.


Excerpted from Where Our Food Comes From by Gary Paul Nabhan. Copyright © 2009 Gary Paul Nabhan. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Gary Paul Nabhan is a world-renowned ethnobiologist, conservationist, and
essayist. The author of Why Some Like It Hot, Coming Home to Eat, and many other books and articles, he has been honored with a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and The John Burroughs Medal for nature writing. Founder and facilitator of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions collaborative, he is currently a Research Social Scientist at the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona. See www.garynabhan.com to track his lecture and photo exhibit schedules.

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