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Five articles in the vein of New Yorker profiles (which they originally were) on five major staple crops of the world: corn, potatoes, wheat, rice, and soybeans--or, the stuff of brutal crises and impossible policy decisions as conveyed through a well-bred sensibility with an instinct for stirring the lumps out of unmanageable facts. In each instance Kahn gracefully sketches in botanical antecedents, the history of cultivation, the crop's role in human nutrition worldwide, and the ongoing story of genetic improvements. The approach is leisurely and meandering, with urbane asides on other staple crops (taro, sorghum and millet, coconuts) and thumbnail biographies of major researchers like Norman Borlaug and Paul Mangelsdorf; but outside of a magazine context there is something trivializing about the cute higgledy-piggledy catalogues of all the products made from corn (""automobile paint, potato chips, plastics, ice cream. . ."") or the jocose summaries of primitive fertility observances. Gratuitous errors or garblings keep appearing in the first chapters--e.g., the remark that Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants has no entries on tree barks, or the suggestion that Napoleon's search for a sugarcane substitute promptly ushered in the general use of ""glucose--sugar from starch"" (actually, sucrose from sugarbeets). More important, statistics tend to get bandied about without much attempt at consistent perspective: the relative importance of sweet corn and fodder corn is mentioned early on, but in statements like ""corn still occupies an impressive one-quarter of all the cropland in the nation,"" one is left to guess how much is for direct human consumption. The quality of both information and analysis improves immensely in the chapters on wheat, rice, and soybeans. Here the thorny issues of the unfinished (and unfinishable) Green Revolution are brought out with increasing seriousness, and the Third World dilemma of subsistence crops for people vs. cotton or coffee for dollars is quietly but tellingly evoked. Worthwhile reading for those who'll never encounter Frances Moore Lapp‚; but not as worthwhile as it could have been.

Pub Date: March 26th, 1985
Publisher: Little, Brown