A convincing argument that the agricultural revolution that has made food more readily available around the world contains the seeds of its own destruction.
Dunn (Applied Ecology/North Carolina State Univ.; The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery, 2015, etc.) takes a popular science route to his subject, summarizing and consolidating the work of others to make his point: that we have gotten ourselves into trouble by thinning the number of species of our most basic foodstuffs so that around the world, there are typically fewer than a handful of species of staples like wheat, rice, corn, and cassava, the plant that provides the greatest number of calories in the African diet. These are usually highly productive species for which effective pesticides have been discovered, but the downside is that once pests learn how to override the pesticides, crop failure and famine are likely to follow. Dunn goes back through history to one of the earliest, and most disastrous, examples of modern agriculture, the introduction of the potato to Ireland from the New World, which succeeded until the potato blight decimated the crop and caused the death of millions. The author chronicles his travels around the world investigating the successes and failures of attempts by scientists and farmers to stave off natural attacks against crops, including a remarkably successful one to introduce wasps to kill off the mealybugs that were destroying the cassava crop in Africa. Dunn also celebrates the Russians who, during World War II, gave their lives to protect a seed bank in Leningrad, and he writes at length about a “doomsday vault” in Norway in which seeds are preserved against apocalypse.
An alarming account but one suggesting that, armed with knowledge, we can reverse this way of treating the plants that feed us and find a way toward a more sustainable diet.