Maintaining Food Crop Diversity: An Interview with Gary Paul Nabhan

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Gary Paul NabhanGuest author Fred Bahnson interviewed Gary Paul Nabhan, a lecturer, food and farming advocate, folklorist, and conservationist who lives and farms in the U.S. Southwest. Nabhan discusses his new book, the future of agriculture, and how 1,400-year-old Lebanese farming techniques influence his land ethic.  

Tell me about your latest book, Where Our Food Comes From-Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine. You went on quite an adventure to write this.

The book is about the centers of food diversity - to remind us that although we may want to eat local, we're also indebted to farming cultures in other parts of the world, parts from which our major food crops were historically derived. Maintaining the diversity of these food crops, taking care of the hotspots of food diversity, and ensuring that the indigenous stewards of those areas maintain control of their arable lands is very, very important.    

Nikolay Vavilov is one of my all-time heroes and perhaps the world's greatest plant explorer. He was born in the 1890s, and about a century ago began to visit some 64 countries to document and gather seeds from those places. He built the first international seed bank-international in the sense that people from all countries had access to it and could draw seeds from it. Knowledge about those seeds came from the farmers in the countries of origin.

Ironically, the man who taught us the most about where our food comes from starved to death in the Soviet Gulag. Stalin needed someone to scapegoat for the famine in the early 1930s that killed 3 or 4 million people. The famine resulted from yield declines that happened after the collectivization of farms in the Soviet Union.

I've thought a lot about why Vavilov's efforts failed. The political ecology of food production in Russia during that time was such that seed diversity alone could not revitalize agriculture. I think that's true today, that seed diversity alone can't make agriculture sustainable. You need diversity in the sizes of farms, diversity in the kinds of farmers we have, diversity in the scales of agricultural production, rather than just all small farms or all big factory farms.

In a totalitarian state, seed diversity isn't enough to save agriculture. And I don't mean just totalitarian states based in communism, but totalitarianism in places with capitalistic ideologies. Unless there's a good match between food justice, food equity, and food diversity, the food system won't be healthy.

Tell me about your travels to retrace Vavilov's footsteps.

I got to go back to 15 of the 64 countries that Vavilov himself had collected seeds in and see how the food diversity of those countries had changed in the intervening 75 years.

Let me first say that nearly all conservation planning, done by global conservation organizations like World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy, is focused on hotspots of biological diversity, some of which we know are in rainforest areas. These are the places most Americans hear about. But what isn't acknowledged is that many of these places, and what I witnessed in the 11 countries I visited on my trip, is that these hotspots of diversity are not necessarily wilderness landscapes. Many of them are cultural landscapes as well. They are places where indigenous people either manage wild vegetation that has wild relatives of crops embedded in it, or the wild species are still managed and protected in cultural landscapes, cultivated landscapes, in the tilled margins, or along fencerows and hedgerows. So there's a compatibility - I wouldn't say harmony because that's a loaded term - between the wild biota and the agricultural diversity.

What struck me as I traveled from Ethiopia to Colombia to Kazakhstan to northern Italy to the Sierra Madre in Mexico is that people are active managers of biological diversity, and their traditions have helped maintain this diversity in place. If we remove the people from these areas and make these places into national parks where agriculture is not allowed or indigenous communities are evicted because they're using resources that conservationists feel should be protected, that we'll lose more than we gain. We are creating what Mark Dowie calls "conservation refugees."

I'm very concerned that Americans understand that the maintenance of diversity on this planet cannot be done by evicting people from those rich habitat areas, but by empowering them to be good stewards of that diversity as they have been in the past.

Talk about how climate change factors into food discussions.

I prefer not to use the term "climate change," but instead to talk about "climate uncertainty." This may not be unidirectional. All places may not warm or get drier. There are quite a few variations in the effects of the global processes that it appears we're going to suffer from. Honoring that there's uncertainty is important.

But if we're trying to protect and revitalize heritage foods, with the place-based heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds of livestock, those heritage breeds will not necessarily be grown in the same places 100 years from now. One scientist, Greg Jones, predicts that 85 percent of the grape varietals in places like Napa Valley will not be able to be grown there under optimum conditions by 2050. Weather shifts will clearly scramble the relationships between place, crop genetics, and cultural traditions over the next 50 years. We need to think about our food traditions and our farming traditions in a much more dynamic way than we previously have.

What do you think will happen by 2050 if we continue on the track we're on in terms of conventional agriculture. Will it even be possible to grow the kind of vast monocultures that we currently grow?

Recently, I've been swayed by the thinking of Alan Nation, who runs a little journal for pasture-based livestock producers called The Stockman Grass Farmer. Alan says that there are economies of scale for large agriculture and large food-distribution systems, and another economy of scale for artisanal production that goes into local food systems. What's really at stake is that "agriculture-of-the-middle." We don't know which way it's going to go. We may still produce some grains on a large scale in 2050 and see them distributed extra-regionally; we still may see that the maple syrup production of Vermont is always sold outside of Vermont.

I don't think the issue has ever been "make agriculture 100-percent local." The issue is about capturing economies of scale, transparency, and traceability by increasing the quality and accessibility of foods that should be produced at a local scale and trying to improve the sustainability of the larger- and middle-scale agriculture as well. In other words, if "sustainability" - whatever that term means - is only something that small farmers care about, and we don't set standards for mid-scale and large-scale agriculture, assuming that it's just going to go away, then we're making a mistake.

I think much of the effort in innovation has been in smaller-scale agriculture to make it sustainable. Some of that may be the incubators for what is carried over to the bigger farms. At another level, some solutions to sustainability are scale-dependent. Rather than antagonizing mid-scale and large-scale agriculturalists, agricultural activists need to figure out a way to help them with problem-solving that needs to be done. I'm not endorsing large-scale feedlots or large-scale apple farms, but I'm also not so naïve to think that great agriculture is all going to be done on 50-acre farms.


But isn't there a point at which farms become too big, when they collapse under their own weight?

Yes, and that's what I mean by "economies of scale." With cereal grains, for instance, if the farm is too small you lose efficiency, both ecological and energetic. But if it's too big you also put it at risk, and part of that risk we've seen is for pests and diseases to evolve quicker than we can put resistance to those things into our crops. We're facing large-scale crop failures from Kenya to Ethiopia and into the Saudi Peninsula for wheat due to a rust epidemic because people planted just a few varieties over an enormously large scale.

My point is the same as yours - agriculture that is too big is already moving toward collapse; but it's also true that there is some optimal scale there for some kind of production, whether it's cereals or beans or something else. We shouldn't become so fundamentalist about local foods that we think they will fulfill all niches of the food system.

What I'd rather see is fair trade between regions for certain things. We think "fair trade" only applies to coffee; but we need to have fair trade apples, too. I'd like to see farmers in the Southeast swap their black-eyed peas and crowder beans with fishermen in the Pacific Northwest for their salmon.

One important point I'd like to make is that it's very important for food activists at every point of their lives to be food producers as well, on whatever scale. I don't think I could be a valid voice on these issues unless I "walked the taco," as we say in the Southwest. I'm spending this next weekend putting in an orchard of 25 fruit-tree varieties, plus crops like asparagus, rhubarb, and prickly pear. In a few more weeks I'll plant annual crops beneath those.

The point is that agricultural science and agricultural activism have become too distant from the needs of farmers and other food producers. The only way to heal the urban/rural divide that we have in this country is for more interplay, more inner-city people to be growing food on rooftops and patios, going out to work on farms during the weekend, and to have farmers in dialogue with consumers so that farmers understand why people want animal-welfare beef, or grassfed lamb, or free-range turkeys. We've broken that dialogue. Very few urban people regularly have access to knowing what farmers and ranchers are struggling with. There's been an unfortunate polarization that's happened as a result of movies like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. that make it sounds like consumers are the enemy of farmers and ranchers. We need those two groups in dialogue with each other rather than seeing more drift.

I'm working now with ranchers on something called "The Next Frontier." It's a coalition of farming and ranching groups in the West. We're trying to get farmers incentives for innovative stewardship practices, and for maintaining ecological services such as pollination, watershed health, and soil erosion control. With less than 1.5 percent of Americans self-identifying as farmers or ranchers, the food producers of this country will lose every policy battle in land use planning, in food safety, and other policy domains if they don't embrace dialogue with urban residents who care about the quality and health of their food.

I think more than ever before in American history, we need to heal that urban/rural divide and increase dialogue so that consumers and producers are working together toward the same goals. That means redoing our education system. Nearly every student that comes into state universities - with the exception of colleges like Warren Wilson, Berea, and Green Mountain - is told that if you want to be an educated person, you should not become a farmer. We basically educate people to get off the land instead of teaching them to be good stewards of the land.

Do you think we need more farmers?

I think we need a lot more farmers. We've broken the chain of orally transmitted traditional knowledge that's been passed down for 8,000 years among farmers. You can't learn to farm just from textbooks. Some of the mistakes I've made raising sheep are due to my not having access to my grandfather's knowledge of raising sheep. Had I had him teaching me, I probably wouldn't have made those mistakes.


How did you get interested in food as your life's work? Did that come from your Lebanese heritage?

I grew up in an extended clan of Lebanese immigrants on the Indiana dunes, on the shores of Lake Michigan about 35 miles outside Chicago. My grandfather was a fruit peddler, he had a fruit truck, and he would come home and tell us what the day had been like, whether people had bought more of one variety of plums over the other, whether they were buying bruised fruit or rejecting it, and he also exchanged fruit for fish with a bunch of Swedish fishermen along the shores of Lake Michigan.

He was adamant about the quality of fruit; he would talk about it to me when I was four-years old as if I were his business partner, saying "people just don't understand the quality of fruit anymore." I think there was this quality of food, much of it coming from only 30 miles away. That was a special thing. We seasonally moved from food to food because that was what made the year interesting.

When I went to school for college and lived in a city, I actually lost weight because I couldn't stomach the homogeneous food. Later, when I started working as an intern at the first Earth Day headquarters, then afterward began a career as an environmental scientist and activist, I was struck that food issues were not important to environmentalists. Environmental activists were more concerned about saving national parks and wilderness areas and stopping urban contamination and less about the quality of life on private lands. Fortunately, many of us started reading Aldo Leopold, who said to pay as much attention to conservation and biodiversity on private lands as you do on public lands. That really shaped my thinking.

What are some specific techniques in water harvesting and sustainable farming that you brought back from Lebanon?

I'll talk more broadly about the Middle East as a whole. They do multiple strata gardening and farming where they grow date palms and olive trees as an overstory crop, then grow more heat-sensitive fruits like apricots and peaches sheltered under that, and under that they'll grow onions, shallots, artichokes, rhubarb, and grapes and such. They often have a three- or four-tiered system on the same piece of land. In a high solar environment with a lot of heat it's very important to get the crops in the right temperature range for fruit to ripen, but it also makes very efficient use of water.

The second thing is that they use systems called ganads. These systems funnel either shallow artesian springs or catch water off slickrock and funnel them into community irrigation systems that are communally managed. Unlike the American West, it's not every man for himself trying to obtain the maximum amount of water, but is rather a community rationing of available rainfall and artesian springwaters. Some of these systems have lasted for 1,000 or even 1,400 years without salination or depletion or contamination.

Nearby, within 20 miles, you can see failed irrigation projects where international development groups have perforated the groundwater, salinized the soil, and ushered in saltwater incursion from the coast. These were multi-million dollar investments that went belly up within 20 years. Juxtapose those with the ganad systems that have been stable for 1,400 years.

On our land in southern Arizona, we're putting in an orchard of ancient desert fruits. My goal is to first increase the water-holding capacity and nutrient abundance of the soil by using terra preta, or biochar. I'm also adding pottery shards and mulch from nitrogen-fixing legume trees that naturally occur on the land, and then, like Joel Salatin says, "stacking" food resources in the same ecosystem so I'm doing a multi-strata orchard of desert-adapted foods that partition the sunlight and water rather than one crop like sugar cane sucking all the water and nutrients out of the soil. Some of the plants I've planted are there to regenerate and give back nutrients to make up for the nutrients I'm taking.

At a certain point I regret that, around 1982, we didn't go with the term regenerative agriculture but instead chose sustainable agriculture. The "S" word has become so hollow and distorted that it's allowed people to greenwash their business with it. Bob Rodale at the Rodale Institute, one of the godfathers of the organic movement, encouraged Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry and I to use the term regenerative agriculture, and I think he was right. That would have been a much better term by which to measure the success of our own stewardship practices.

Fred Bahnson is a Kellogg Food & Society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a contributing author for the Worldwatch Institute.Visit Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet blog to learn more about improving livelihoods through sustainable agriculture.

This article appeared in its original form on the Worldwatch blog Nourishing the Planet. For permission to republish this article, please contact Danielle Nierenberg at