Bahnson: 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.

Nabhan: 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.

B: Tell me about your travels to retrace Vavilov’s footsteps.

N: 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 fence rows 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.

B: One of the themes in your Vavilov book is that of food diversity as food security.

N: The definition of food security that I like most is “affordable access of culturally appropriate, nutritious foods to diverse populations.” From working on an earlier book, Why Some Like It Hot, about the relationships between food, genes, and cultural diversity, it’s clear that the reason why most diet plans fail to help everyone who tries them is that there’s no single silver-bullet diet that will serve the broad range of ethnic populations in the world. There is no magic diet, whether it’s the South Beach diet or the Andrew Weil diet.

It’s absurd to think that there would be a one-size-fits-all diet for a population that’s so genetically diverse in its nutritional needs. On top of that, some foods are considered culturally essential to people’s identity. Take for example the packets we sent off to Haiti to help earthquake victims: we think that by giving all people rice, crackers, applesauce, and cheese in a box, that this will satisfy their nutritional needs. What if they have lactose intolerance to milk products? What if they have allergies to certain grains? If we’re really moving toward food security, we have to supply food diversity.

B: It seems obvious that people have different cultural needs with certain foods, but it’s not obvious that people have different nutritional needs based on their ethnicity.

N: Most people in the world have lactose intolerance, and it’s only people of western and northern European ancestry who have lactose tolerance. In Why Some Like It Hot, I wrote that at least one-third of the world’s population, maybe as much as half, has gene-food interactions that make it difficult for them to eat certain foods—whereas other foods serve a protective function in their diet.

Mediterranean people, for example, have a food aversion to fava beans. Eating a small amount of dried fava beans served as protection from malaria, but eating green fava beans would often cause nutritional shock and even a toxicity called “favism.” Japanese and Native Americans typically have a higher intolerance to alcohol.

To some extent, food diversity is a key food justice and food security issue. I don’t think that groups like Slow Food or Community Food Security Coalition have yet focused on that to the extent that they should. The food diversity that we’re getting into local marketplaces is sort of icing on the cake.

In the U.S. Southwest, there is a movement to bring local farmer’s markets into low-income multicultural areas in the form of Food Mobiles. These areas have a high proportion of elderly people who want to buy fresh food, but they can’t get out to the farmer’s market. So this Food Mobile, a sort of “book mobile” of food diversity, comes right to their neighborhoods. I think the real way to deal with food deserts, which unfortunately occur where we have a lot of immigrant and low-income populations, including refugees, is to provide means of giving them food options at an affordable price. These food mobiles are one way to do it.

B: Talk about how climate change factors into food discussions.

N: 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.

"I think more than ever before in American history, we need to heal that urban/rural divide and increase dialog so that consumers and producers are working together toward the same goals," says Nabhan.

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.

B: 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?

N: 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 done on 50-acre farms.

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

N: 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 its cereals of 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.

B: Do you think we need more farmers?

N: 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.

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

N: 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. The issues were about wilderness or urban contamination and not much about the quality of our landscape shift in rural areas.

I would say that 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.

I am inherently curious about comparing how people manage their land and eat from it in different cultures, particularly desert cultures. When I first went to Lebanon, to my grandfather’s village, in the early 90s and saw how land was managed there, the different vegetable and fruit varieties, the heritage breeds of lamb and goats, it really gave me a portfolio of ideas to adapt to the desert place where I live today. By spending time immersed in another culture, particularly a habitat or landscape similar to the one you live in, you see how people have problem-solved. I’m interested in how people have used local biodiversity and nested it in their farmlands and orchards and kitchen gardens in their particular climate to create a soil-based carbon-neutral food system.

One of the things in the Middle East in which I’ve been very interested, for example, is the water-harvesting traditions, especially those that don’t rely on pumping fossil ground water, and how those techniques can be incorporated into mid-scale water harvesting regimes to grow food in the arid West of the United States. We need to understand that we have entered a post-peak fossil ground water era, and that’s just as important as understanding that we’ve entered a post-peak fossil fuel era.

B: But isn’t water primarily an issue in the American West?

N: It’s not an exclusively Western issue. We have groundwater contamination, saltwater intrusion, and groundwater overdraft in many other parts of the country, not just the arid West. And because much of our winter food in the U.S. comes from Arizona and California, groundwater problems should be a concern to anyone in North America who eats.

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

N: 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.

B: What are your thoughts on the competing ideas of abundance versus scarcity with food production? The whole Green Revolution approach to food is predicated upon an idea of scarcity, therefore we must produce as much food as we possibly can. And yet your work seems to be about fostering an abundance that’s already there in nature.

N: That’s an interesting way to put it. There are two thoughts I’ve had lately. One thought arose when I went out with a rancher about three weeks ago, who took me and the dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Arizona out to his plots. We were standing out in his pasture, and he said, “I want a science of limits.” There were some things he could do to pump up the productivity of this semi-arid rangeland. But to some extent, especially in a highly arid climate with a great amount of uncertainty because of climate variability, the most important thing for him to do was to manage his land within the limits of what it could naturally produce each year. And he said, “I spend hours and hours each month monitoring this ecosystem’s health. And I don’t push that health past its breaking point. So we need a science and an ethic of limits.”

This rancher made a plea to reincorporate a land ethics course into the College of Agriculture, so that every agriculture and natural resources scientist would have to have this knowledge. We call those people Doctors of Philosophy, but virtually no PhD in the natural sciences anymore has ever had an ethics or philosophy course. I think building a land ethic course into every science curriculum in the country is key. We need a science that understands scarcity and abundance and limits, not like the old Leibniz Law of the Minimum where limits are thought of in a merely quantitative, reductionistic way, but in all the dimensions.

The second thing is that some people have examined the empty calories in our current diet and have said “yes, we produce more food, but its mostly empty calories.” And these folks have come up with a wonderful concept called nutritional density, measured in per-unit weight or per meal. We’re not talking about whether or not a particular food satisfies the minimum daily requirements or whether we can produce 3,000 pounds of corn per acre, what we’re talking about is the density or richness in a particular food in terms of nutrients.

Yield alone as a measure of abundance doesn’t tell us much. What really tells us a lot is whether or not we’re getting micro and macro nutrients, not just calories, and whether that food is satisfying to us.

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.