vavilov and corn

Corn Conversations

Plant Geneticist Nikolay Vavilov was a hero. Because biodiversity was his thing, he wrote extensively about the importance of having different plant varieties side by side so that they could ‘talk’ to one another, thereby promoting species diversity. He particularly loved corn.

Nikolay Vavilov, considered to be the father of seed banking

Vavilov makes quite a few appearances in The Seed Thief. (The protagonist’s dog is named after him, for one thing!) In 1930 Vavilov visited the Sierre Madre,  a biodiversity hotspot, where he first observed cultivated corn ‘conversing’ with its wild relative, teosinte – a natural practice which he believed strengthened the gene pool and resilience of all the corn varieties.

I just came across this fascinating article which shows modern farmers being encouraged to follow similar practices — and what happens when they don’t:

It also shows how nature will always find a way around any obstacles humans try to impose. And those ways will not always be to our species’ benefit… Which reminds me of a TV ad from the 70s. I think it marked the beginning of the ‘margarine vs butter’ wars. ‘It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature’ went the punchline.

(Nostaligia can be a little bit overwhelming. Especially when you can’t set the video playback size. So now that I have your attention…)

If you’d like to read more about Vavilov’s extraordinary life and work, I highly recommend Gary Paul Nabhan’s ‘Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine‘. Don’t  let the elementary-school-primer sound of the title fool you. It’s a fascinating account of Vavilov’s travels around the world to ensure food security. And of his death of starvation at the hands of Stalin and the Nazis.

There is no such thing as irony.

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