Where Our Food Comes From

Learn what a three-year journey taught Gary Nabhan about the world of agriculture and how it's adjusting to new changes.

| Dec. 17, 2008

Not far from the ancient Inca Trail, a Quechuan farmer in highlands of Peru plants a dozen kinds of native potatoes, their skins purple or tan, their flesh yellow or blue, their forms gnarly or egg-shaped. He goes about his work much the way his forefathers have always done, but this year he plants these heirloom tubers in micro-climates along the mountainside different from where he had ever planted them before.

Halfway around the world along the Silk Road in Tajikistan, an Asian “Johnny Appleseed” looks up at the melting glaciers above him, then digs a few holes on a table-like plateau below sixteen-thousand foot peaks. There, he transplants a mix of fruit trees taken from other villages nearby, hoping to see which will bear fruit for years to come.

What do farmers and orchard-keepers do when their climate changes faster than they could have ever imagined? How do they respond to crop pests and diseases that suddenly show up on their farms?  If particular rural families are known to farm “traditionally,” does that necessarily mean that they are inflexible and therefore vulnerable to such unforeseen changes?

These very questions are among those I asked when embarking on a three-year field adventure known as Where Our Food Comes From, during which I visited so-called traditional farmers in eleven countries on five continents. My choices of where to visit were not random; I was retracing the routes of the greatest seed collector and farming geographer who ever lived, Nikolay Vavilov (1887-1943). He was the great Russian scientist who came up with the notion of “centers of diversity” both for wild floras and for food crops, these areas are unusually rich in plant variety, and are where most of our domesticated crops originated. Not only did he personally collect hundreds of thousands of seeds in some 64 countries, but he also interviewed hundreds of traditional, indigenous and peasant farmers growing food under conditions that ranged from tropical rainforests in the Amazon, to the highest, driest mountains in the world, in central Asia. By retracing his steps, I hoped to learn whether traditional agriculture was resilient and enduring, or as many bureaucrats have predicted, whether it is a “thing of the past,” unable to adequately adapt to the current ecological and economic pressures it is facing.

What I found by comparing my own field notes to those of Russian plant explorer Vavilov was both heartening and sobering. Yes, traditional farmers are dynamically adapting to shifting weather, soils, pests and plagues. They continue to improvise strategies in response to changing climatic and economic conditions. It is clear that many have remained resilient enough to stay afloat, despite the fact that the global food economy has seldom fully rewarded them for their fine food, traditional knowledge, hard work and ingenuity. And yet, most of the farmers I met are also facing unprecedented pressures from globalization, genetically-modified crops, and dwindling water supplies (worsened by pumping to burgeoning cities or mining industries). These stresses make traditional farming more challenging than ever before. Let me offer you a few stories from the field as examples of what I mean.

Along the Silk Road of Central Asia, Pamiri farmers have for centuries grown seeds and fruits irrigated by the ice-cold waters drained from glaciers capping the mountains known as the Roof of the World. But today, those glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates, and the local climate of each Pamiri valley has been shifting dramatically since World War II. Some seed crops such as wheat and barley are now being grown nearly 1200 feet higher than they were grown when Nikolay Vavilov first visited the region in 1915. This is because the growing season is several weeks longer than it once was, and farmers have locally-adapted seeds first brought in from Afghanistan to be better fitted to these warmer conditions. But at the same time, many of their fruit and nut trees have stopped bearing, for they no longer receive the number of “cold days” required to trigger flowering and fruiting.

Julie Casey
12/20/2008 10:46:45 AM

As I believe this article indicates, global warming is only a minor problem that these farmers must adapt to, but the major problem facing them and the entire world is overpopulation, and that cannot be easily adapted to. We need to stop expending so much of our scientific energy studying global global warming (a problem that we can and will adapt to) and, instead, focus on the real threat to the world - overpopulation.

Jeremy Cherfas
12/18/2008 2:32:08 AM

If you are interested in Vavilov's work, and Gary Paul Nabhan's take on it, you might like to visit the Vaviblog at http://www.vaviblog.com/

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