World history, told through the lens of cereal grains
Aug. 30, 2013
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A hero in Asmund Bjornstad’s telling of the story of grains is Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian biologist and pioneer of genetics, and Dr. Vavilov’s followers.
“His guiding idea was that, in order to improve plants, one had to select from as wide a diversity as possible,” Mr. Bjornstad says. “To do so he had to collect them.”
That’s exactly what Dr. Vavilov did, traveling from 1916 until 1940 through the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa gathering seeds and building the world’s largest gene bank in Leningrad. His work allowed him to contribute significantly to theories of the origins of agriculture. Dr. Vavilov’s career was cut short when he was abruptly jailed amid Stalinist regime intrigue, and during the 900-day Leningrad siege in World War II, he died in prison in 1943 from starvation. The same fate befell about one million Russians, a third of the city’s population. Among the dead were 30 of Dr. Vavilov’s seed bank curators, who starved without touching the seed samples, Mr. Bjornstad writes.
“The rice expert D.S. Ivanov was found dead among thousands of packages of rice from all over Asia,” he says. “Little did they know that one of the primary German aims was to seize the gene bank.”
Dr. Vavilov’s story is told early in “Our Daily Bread: A History of Cereals” together with the contributions of other scientists to modern day agriculture, including Carl Linnaeus, Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel.
In the preface of this well written, clearly translated and magnificently illustrated volume, Mr. Bjornstad says the book’s core is “to describe the vast implications of the genetic changes in crops since agriculture started 10,000 years ago.” The book largely achieves this objective while also offering a fascinating look at world history through the prism of grains. To whatever extent history is usually offered from a military/conquest point of view, Mr. Bjornstad’s story makes a compelling case that nothing helps one understand world history better than understanding the ups and downs of food production.
In Rome, grain rules the Emperor
In a passage on the Roman Empire, Mr. Bjornstad says its grain supply was the dominant theme of its history, from the republican days until the fall of the last emperor. He quotes the Emperor Aurelian who stated simply, “None are more content than Romans,” when they are well fed.
But it was costly to keep the Romans well fed.
“In this way, grain ruled the emperor, and Rome built an empire which the world had never before seen,” Mr. Bjornstad says. “With Rome as the absolute center, the empire stretched from Egypt to England and to the Caspian Sea — all colonized for their grain. The colonies were kept in order by loyalty to the Emperor, as the empire’s highest principal, and by ‘rule and divide’ as the method.”
Among the engineering feats of the Roman Empire cited by Mr. Bjornstad is the development of mechanized, industrial mills. But for hundreds of years following the collapse of the empire, most milling in Europe was done by hand and was hard work that did not generate more than a day’s food needs.
“It was the work of maids or slaves,” Mr. Bjornstad writes. He calls the collapse of the “magnificent Roman inventions in milling” a great riddle of grain history.
Rather than simply blaming the collapse on the ignorance of invading barbarians, the Gauls and Goths, Mr. Bjornstad cites observers noting superstitious fears associating agriculture with theft from the gods and beliefs that demons “entered the storehouses of men (during the winter) and took back the stolen grain or flour.” Fears of spirits inhabiting the rivers, hills and wind prevailed even to the near past. He cited a 1671 incident in which Estonian farmers burned down a water mill that had “offended the brook.”
He continues, “Was it mere literary fancy when Dante, at the lowermost station in Hell, imagined Satan in the shape of a wind mill?”
Credit for overcoming these fears goes to the church, Mr. Bjornstad says.
“It was not bound by, and indeed fought, such superstitions,” he says.
70 million years of plant history
Mr. Bjornstad’s history begins far earlier than the start of civilization or even agriculture. A section on the family tree of grains discusses how the grass family accounts for more than 9,000 species.
“The banana family is the closest relative to the grass family,” he says. “Around 70 million years ago, at the time of the dinosaur extinction, these two families diverged from a common ancestor. At that time, the grass ancestor underwent a doubling of the number of its chromosomes. Next, the family split into three subfamilies, some ancient, other more recent. Rice formed its own lineage around 50 million years ago.”
Mr. Bjornstad is a Norwegian plant breeder, and a large part of the book offers overviews of individual grains, their genetic background and their place in the world today.
Basic overviews are offered for oats, barley, rye, rice, corn and sorghum. An extensive section of the book is devoted to the genetics of grain and is intended, Mr. Bjornstad says, not for academics but for lay readers, an objective not fully achieved. That he is a geneticist rather than a historian is evident in the writing from time to time, but Mr. Bjornstad leans well on earlier sources such as the 1944 book, “Six Thousand Years of Bread,” by Heinrich Jacob. He is correct in lamenting the fact that so few books of substance have been written about bread in the 70 years since the publication of “Six Thousand Years.”
Important perspectives on the revolution in milling that took place in the United States and Europe are offered by Mr. Bjornstad. The revolution began in the 18th century in Philadelphia, where a seven-story steam driven mill was built by Oliver Evans. The mill featured an “ingenious mechanism that hoisted the middlings,” but the mill faced a basic problem — an inability to separate flour from bran. The problem was addressed by the invention of a purifier that used air streams to blow the bran off the wheat middlings.
The next phase of the revolution took place at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, the only waterfalls along the Mississippi river.
“After a fortuitous fire in 1878, the miller Cadwallader Washburn took a decisive step and built a seven-story roller mill based upon technology imported from Europe,” Mr. Bjornstad says. “Soon, the competitor on the opposite side of the river, Pillsbury, followed suit. Stones were replaced by steel rollers with grated surfaces.”
He notes the same revolution occurred in Europe, replacing a tradition dating back to the time of the Crusaders. For instance, a roller mill was constructed in 1884 at the Bjolsen waterfall in Oslo with the capacity to produce 1,750 sacks of flour per day. A nearby watermill in Oslo dated from the year 1147 and had the capacity to produce 150 sacks per day.
Span of challenges still prevail
In addition to telling the world history through the story of grains, Mr. Bjornstad offers a look into a range of current issues related to grain. These include problems such as background on stem rust, The Green Revolution, water availability, challenges with boosting yields and genetic modification.
What’s most impressive here is how Mr. Bjornstad proposes addressing an array of important issues affecting grains and food. He describes writing a book with such a broad perspective as “essentially an impossible venture,” and at times the challenge is apparent.
For instance, in a discussion of increased futures volatility, Mr. Bjornstad doesn’t shed much light on what is causing the problem.
“In 2000, the Clinton administration abolished all regulation on speculation in commodities,” he says, greatly oversimplifying the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.
Mr. Bjornstad is on firmer ground when he discusses the issues associated with the Ug99, a race of stem rust discovered in Uganda in 1999. He notes the spread of Ug99 has not been as great to date as feared.
“Should Ug99 reach the Indian subcontinent, nan and chapatti for one billion people and 20% of the world’s wheat crops are endangered,” he says. “It would make the winds on world markets in 2008 and 2010 a mere breeze.”
A number of interesting dynamics in world food production are featured in the book, such as the growth of potatoes as a food source worldwide.
“Since 2005 more potatoes are grown in the tropics than in temperate areas, and it has the potential to increase even more,” he says.
The book offers only a glance into issues relating to water use and fertilizer. He notes that food production currently accounts for 85% of water use worldwide. In discussing sustainability issues around fertilizer, he says recycling phosphorous would require the separation of feces and urine.
“This separation is already implemented in some municipalities in Sweden,” he says. “It has been estimated that urine could support two thirds of Sweden’s grain production.”
Ultimately, it is the history passages of “Our Daily Bread” that will leave readers’ heads shaking in amazement.
While he gives the church credit for reviving mechanical milling, other episodes associated with religion and grains are far darker. “Unintended additives” in grains were cited by Mr. Bjornstad as contributing to persecution of “witches” and Jews.
He notes ergot, a fungus that can infect grain during flowering, sometimes triggers vivid hallucinations when ingested.
“A series of investigations have pointed to a connection between ergot, inexplicable epidemics and witchcraft trials in Europe and in Salem in the USA,” Mr. Bjornstad says. In Norway in the 1600s, a country with only 3,500 people, at least 137 were accused of witchcraft and 90 burned or hanged.
A different microbe with a historical role cited by Mr. Bjornstad is Serratia marcescens.
“It may produce blood-stain-like colonies on bread stored in moist and warm conditions,” he says. “In Catholic churches it happened that where consecrated bread may be stored for some time, there was ‘blood on the Host.’” The phenomenon triggered reactions of “awe and dread,” he says.
Because the Lateran Edict beginning in 1215 determined that bread and wine were physically changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus, it was widely concluded that “Jews, who had once before killed Jesus” were responsible, stabbing the bread with a dagger, Mr. Bjornstad says.
“In 1243, all the Jews in Beelitz, near Berlin, were burned for this crime,” he says. “In many European cities they were sentenced for the same misdeeds.”
The bloodletting did not cease until the 19th century when the German biologist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg showed that “the bleeding bread” had natural causes.
Nikolai Vavilov reappears later in Mr. Bjornstad’s book as he explains the role of grains in bringing on World War II and problems in the former U.S.S.R.
Discussing the Versailles treaty following World War I, Mr. Bjornstad identifies agricultural elements that planted the seeds for the devastating conflict to follow.
Terms required Germany to “surrender its eastern granary, Prussia, which meant 2 million hectares less land for rye and oats — 15% of the national supply,” he says.
“The loss of Prussia prolonged the starvation of Germany well into the 1920s,” Mr. Bjornstad says. “The grain issue became an essential part of Hitler’s Lebensraum (expansionist ideology).”
Here Mr. Bjornstad offers eerie parallels between the Nazi’s agricultural agenda and Hitler’s genocidal ambitions.
“Not only did the Nazis confiscate crops in occupied territories. The drang nach Osten — the re-Germaization of Poland and western Russia — was the grand plan of Heinrich Himmler. His SS division Ahnerbe (Ancestral heritage) was charged with not only breeding the race but the crops.”
He goes on to describe how Himmler ordered the SS to establish an Institute of Plant Genetics in Austria. When the director Heinz Brucher (on Himmler’s staff) was ordered to burn the facility in 1945, he “hid the seed treasures in neighboring farms.” Mr. Brucher later quietly made “an unknown seed deal” with the U.S. occupation forces in 1947. He quietly slipped off into Sweden and then to Argentina. In the latter country, Mr. Bjornstad says Mr. Brucher spent years as a neighbor of the famous Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann.
Reading Mr. Bjornstad’s account, it is easy to connect the dots between the imprisonment and death of Dr. Vavilov and the fall of the U.S.S.R. a half century later. Mr. Bjornstad explains that the failure of grain production in the U.S.S.R. to keep up with demand was due in large measure to the machinations of Communist party leaders. As American hybrids gained popularity in the late 1930s, Nikita Khruschev (who had befriended Roswell Garst, owners of Garst Hybrid Seed Co.) called on prominent Soviet botanist Mr. Vavilov to learn more.
“However, Vavilov was arrested the night before,” Mr. Bjornstad says. “This was probably prompted by his foe Trofim Lysenko, who fought such ‘capitalist’ genetics. Khruschev officially protected Lysenko until he himself was ousted from power in 1964. The arrest of Vavilov and the rise of Lysenko set back Soviet genetics and agriculture for decades. It was probably one of the decisive moments in the history of the Cold War, a chapter not well written.”
Even if Mr. Bjornstad’s “Our Daily Bread” is overambitious and stretched thin at times, the book offers a powerful and valuable perspective on history, interesting to anyone earning a living in the field.
“History of Cereals” is available from Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org).