Friday, November 20, 2009


I’ve always been interested in food. Been ahead of the game, but nobody knows this apart from family and friends who over the years have been made to eat all sorts of weird vegetable matter. Like couscous, which nobody in England had ever heard of when I first cooked it in 1977, having found it in a French supermarket, and now finally it is all over the British supermarket shelves too. And wild garlic soup, which I first served up to dubious looking faces in c. 1982, and now it’s rather galling to see that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has discovered it, and it is all over the celebrity chef programmes, pretentious restaurant menus - and I dread to think what wild garlic leaves cost now down in trendy greengrocers in Islington.

One day they’ll realise just how scrumptious stir-fried Japanese knotweed is too. And perhaps one day I’ll find a recipe for ragi that doesn’t stick in your teeth.

Having concentrated on innovation in the garden world, and let’s face it, been jolly successful at it, I finally decided that I had to try to get some new thinking going in the food world too. I think the germ of the idea behind Hybrid came when the GM crops debate hit the headlines around the turn of the century. I only had A level Biology but I was appalled at the nonsense that came from so many people whose opinions I otherwise respected. So many seemed prey to the most bizarre journalistic fantasies – as if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a genetics textbook. I wanted to read some background on the methods used in plant breeding up to now, but couldn’t find anything. And since other folk had written successful books with titles like Salt, Cod, Porcelain etc, I thought that perhaps there might be a market for Hybrid.

Travelling was another thing. Loving to see what people grew in their fields, how they grew it, what they did with it. Buying all sorts of weird dried vegetable matter in Indian markets. Getting slightly non-plussed guides to quiz market ladies about the exuberant but puzzling greenery they were selling. Trying out any new grain, new vegetable, new spice I could lay my hands on. But also seeing how, in much of the world, the downside of agriculture was the destruction of natural habitat for the other species we share the earth with. And here there is a paradox, because what I found myself being most disturbed by was not intensive agriculture – fresh fields of densely-planted crops, but the bad agriculture much of the world’s poor find themselves shackled to – fields where the crops were hardly visible behind weeds, crops shredded by pests, measly and dried-up looking rows of corn. Anyone who in their own garden has lost a row of pea seedlings to mice, seen their nicely-maturing lettuce demolished by slugs, or suddenly smelt the nauseating odour of potato blight can relate to this, and magnified a hundred fold to those third world farmers who can’t just replace their lost crops with a trip to the local supermarket but who might actually starve as a consequence. Apart from anything else the amount of time poor farmers spend on tending crops which give such meagre results. The sight too of how many farmers in marginal areas are forced to fell every bit of forest and terrace every bit of hillside, and let their goats eat every last scrap of not-completely-laden-with- toxin wild plant in order to produce enough to feed themselves. A land of poor farming is a land denuded of natural habitat, of wildlife, and almost inevitably losing its fertility, its water and its soil. This is what so utterly depressed me about Rajasthan in India – an overpopulated Medieval rural slum in a state of ecological collapse.

Researching Hybrid, wading through 450 books, leaflets, articles, research papers, newspaper stories, political tracts, I came to realise just how much we owe the plant breeders of the past, from the scientists to the observant tribal peasant - via the gentleman farmers of the 18th century Enlightenment. And how, with the pressures of population growth and climate change we must go on breeding plants, using every available method, and of course every available crop: manioc, ragi, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, urid. Biotechnology opens the whole of creation to the plant breeder; we are learning to mix and match genes to our hearts delight, which is a wonderful and magical thing, and so full of hope. Who owns and controls the technology may be a vexed question, one there are no easy answers to, but there is no doubting our need to grab the technology with both hands - and fearlessly. By researching the history of plant breeding I lost any residual worries I had about GM crops, and I hope my book will give modern biotechnology a historical background and context, and encourage a more positive attitude. And if you did Frankenstein rather than Mendel at school, you can even brush up on the good monk’s basic laws of genetics too.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Giant acorns, bromeliads and dodgy mayors

Another conference in Mexico, or perhaps I should say ‘congress’ as that is the word they use. I roll up right at the end for a final keynote, so I don’t get much sense of what has been going on, except that it is about preserving biodiversity through horticulture.

It looks like these big gatherings are clearly incredibly important here. I suppose in a large and very diverse country they are a good way of getting people together to share experiences and information, learn about new ways of doing things etc. To my eye it all seemed very formal, lots of speechifying and sitting behind important-looking desk signage. An inordinate amount of time and effort promoting the venue for the next congress – Monterrey. The Head of Tourism from Monterrey was there – he showed a video about the wonders of the place and all the activities you can do there: water-skiing, diving, looking at giraffes in the zoo – all the stuff you have no time to do if you are there at a conference (or indeed a desire to); projected so that you couldn’t see half of the image.

On the subject of biodiversity, here in lushly tropical Veracruz province it is truly incredible. Steep hills are covered in dense forest – very little sign of deforestation here, and there is so much to see, very easily. Hilly forest is a much better environment to see plants, and life generally than lowland forest. Slopes allow you to look straight into tree canopies and appreciate the thick growth of bromeliads, orchids, ferns and other epiphytes. The climate is so humid that tillandsias even grow on electricity and telephone cables. Hill forest also gets a lot more light at ground level so the ground flora is a lot more interesting than in lowlands.

One day we had a bus trip to the botanic gardens at Xalapa, one of the few in the world in cloud forest. Needless to say it rained, and while we sheltered in the potting shed listening to Phil Brewster, the English head of hort. we got the occasional deafening rattle of a giant acorn hitting the corrugated iron roof. There are apparently around 150 species of oak here. What is particularly wonderful about the flora here is that northern temperate (like oak, hornbeam, walnut, liquidamber etc) meet tropical and where north meets south.

For a country with such eye-popping levels of floristic diversity, plant availability in the nursery trade is abysmal. I looked through the national catalogue of ornamental plants grown in Mexico’s nurseries – very few were Mexican, it was the same boring list of global ornamental plants. My friend Cruz Garcia Albarado is doing his best to promote more trialling of Mexican natives, and there must be others doing similar things – I spotted a big and impressive book in the Mexico City University Botanic Gardesn on ‘Plants with ornamental potential in the state of Morelos’. At the congress, Cruz got elected to be Il Presdente of AMEHOAC – the Mexican Association for Ornamental Horticulture – pretty good for a chap in his mid-thirties. Got talking to a few people about the whole business of getting Plant Breeders’ Rights onto some cultivars of Mexican plants so that the economy might benefit – tangled topic, but good to make a start. We even talk about trying to get an international congress off the ground – on the subject of introducing wild plants into cultivation.

Veracruz is also pretty safe. So much of Mexico isn’t – owing to the drug cartels’ domination of much of the countryside. On my last visit (Feb 2007 – see blogs) I had given a lecture in Uruapan, introduced by the Mayor (with a great bearhug for the benefit of the local press) – who I thought at the time was a man I wouldn’t trust further than I could throw him. It turns out he is now in jail, on charges of involvement with a particularly nasty cartel who operate in the state of Michoacan – they caught the national headlines once when they flung five decapitated heads onto the dance floor of a disco. One does occasionally meet unsavoury types in the otherwise gentle world of gardening.