Where Our Food Comes From

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.

Rather than letting their trees remain barren, and giving up on fruit production altogether, Pamiri orchard-keepers have begun to gather other heirloom varieties from nearby villages, to plant in what is known as “common gardens,” for they are a mix of selections from both lower and higher elevations, distant and near. As these trees mature, farmers can see which bear fruit more consistently under their changing conditions. Rather than suffering as passive victims of climate change, they are experimenting with options that might help them keep their farming traditions alive over the long haul.

In oases hidden within the hottest, driest reaches of the Sahara in western Egypt, Berber and Bedouin farmers still maintain most of the date palm and olive varieties that have served them well for centuries. But beneath the canopies of these tree crops, they grow an ever-increasing variety of vegetables, some adapted to shade, some to full sun; some tolerant of alkalinity, others requiring sweeter water. From a distance, their palm groves look much the same as they did to camel caravans that traveled the Spice Trail from the Middle East to Morocco a thousand years ago; up close, the oasis agriculturalists are constantly shifting the mix of annual crops in their polyculture plantings. In addition, they are now collaborating with non-profits like Slow Food International to get top dollar for their exquisitely tasting dates, olives and hibiscus flowers, for their delicious varieties are found nowhere else in the world.

For such small-scale farmers, seed and fruit diversity is not an abstraction, something to be stored away in gene banks for future use in crop improvement. Diversity is their bread and butter, and must constantly be renewed in the field if it is to reach the kitchen table for nourishment and for pleasure. The traditional farmers and cooks of the world remain the stewards of the world’s food diversity, from potatoes and dates in the field to sourdough yeast and cheese mold and bacteria cultures in the kitchen and cold cellar.

And yet today, more than ever before, these diverse food traditions are facing unprecedented challenges, from genetically-modified corn contaminating ancient maize varieties, to antibiotics knocking out the beneficial bacteria in our dairies and cheese cellars. Farmers from all around the world want to do what they do best: produce diverse, delicious food. They therefore need our support as allies in fending off the threats to these time-tried, dynamic agricultural traditions. In a very real sense, traditional farming communities — particular in mountainous areas — remain the places where our food truly comes from.

Gary Paul Nabhan is author of the recently-released book from Island Press, Where Our Food Comes From, and is founder-facilitator of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions initiative. He first wrote a note for Mother Earth News in 1970, while working as a cartoonist at the national headquarters for the first Earth Day. Today, he raises desert crops, and heritage breeds of turkeys and sheep in the dry lands of Arizona. Follow his blogs and books, as well as his lecture and workshop schedule here.
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