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Book Review: Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine by Gary Paul Nabhan

Review by Janet Raloff

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Few people give thought to where the tomato, apple or walnuts in their salad came from. Or what grains gave rise to the wheat in their bread or barley in their beer. University of Arizona ethnobotanist Nabhan was intensely curious about these questions—and about the exploits of the man he credits with first traveling the world to find the genetic birthplace of the foods we depend upon.

Born in 1887, Nikolay Vavilov is known for creating the world’s first major seed bank. To assemble that living genetic library, which still survives in St. Petersburg, Russia, he organized 115 research expeditions through some 64 countries and collected seeds of food crops from five continents. For this book, Nabhan hiked in Vavilov’s footsteps to many of the same centers of agricultural diversity.

Even up to 90 years after Vavilov’s journey, many spots remain exotic and little changed. On the “roof of the world” in Tajikistan’s Pamiri highlands, Nabhan saw where Vavilov acquired more than 200 seed collections, including onions, wheats, lentils and chickpeas. In Italy’s Po Valley, Nabhan saw the same olives, capers, grapes and salad greens that impressed Vavilov. Trips also took Nabhan to Lebanon, Ethiopia, the American Southwest and Mexico’s Sierra Madre—which Vavilov called the mother lode of food biodiversity.

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

Island Press, 2009, 223 p., $24.95


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