The title is a bit misleading: this book isn’t just about how our main food crops have become monocultures of single varieties, and why that’s bad news. It’s about so many other details and nuances in how the plants we depend upon for food are interconnected with the lives of pests, pathogens and pollinators and how they are affected by climate variations. In ways that are far more subtle and delicately balanced that I had imagined. It’s about how the seemingly casual choices of explorers centuries ago influenced the types of foods we know today. It’s about how diversity is fast disappearing in plant species across the world and why that’s so alarming. It’s about plant genetics and breeding, the scramble of scientists to understand food webs and plant diseases, the cause of disasters in the past like the Irish potato famine, how crucial it is to avoid another in the future- yet we seem to be lining everything up for such a calamity to happen again. It’s about how agriculture arose, and changed drastically very recently, and why that has caused funding to shift away from the very scientists who might save us from loosing our food plants. It’s about the importance of saving nature- not because wild animals are interesting or have their own right to live, but because there are so many unknowns out there that might be key to adaptations in a fast-changing world. I thought most of the discussions in this book would be about food crops, and for the most part they are: bananas, cocoa, coffee, corn, wheat, wine grapes etc. But there’s also a chapter all about rubber trees, diseases that strike them, and problems on rubber plantations. Lots of history and the importance (and amazing dedication) of seed collectors too. I think the page I found most striking though, standing out in my mind hours after finishing the book, was the description of a room the author visited- a museum collection of plant pathogens and diseases- pieces of leaf, stem, seed, branch, etc. all afflicted in some way, arranged around the room in disarray- for the collection was no longer properly maintained or cared for. He said it was “an unkempt wilderness of our oblivion” and therein was a piece of wood which the elderly curator showed him:
On the wood grew a serpentine monster of a fungus. “That was a fungus from the collection that escaped and started to eat the building”, he explained. The same collection, in other words, that could shed light on some of the most significant events in human history could also eat at civilization. The piece of wood had been preserved, the curator noted, because it emphasized the power of fungi and, I supposed, the fallibility of humans.
Borrowed from the public library.