[Marxism] Have a Banana. On Second Thought, Don’t.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 16 10:14:53 MDT 2017

(Reviewed by Jason Moore's co-author.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review, April 16 2017
Have a Banana. On Second Thought, Don’t.

How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply 
and Our Future
By Rob Dunn 323 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $27.

Toward the end of his engrossing book, Rob Dunn, a biologist at North 
Carolina State University, meditates on the humility with which his 
colleagues and forebears have preserved the planet’s botany: “Protected 
by these people keeping guard at the levees, our civilization’s position 
is one in which we are behind the levee but below the level of the 
water. It is a humble position, humbler by the day.” Cresting the levees 
are the diseases and pests that threaten to end modern agriculture. Dunn 
shows how we have been spared catastrophe by legions of unsung heroes 
and heroines working across a range of crops, from cassava to cocoa to 
rubber to wheat. Biological battle rarely makes headlines, though when 
it does it’s usually a story of spectacular failure involving bad 
biology and worse economics. Mao Zedong commanded a 1958 war on the 
vermin afflicting Chinese granaries, encouraging the extermination, over 
a two-day period, of all fleas, flies, rats and sparrows. The government 
recorded “48,695.49 kilos of flies, 930,486 rats and 1,367,440 
individual sparrows.” Unfortunately, tree sparrows don’t eat just grain 
— they also consume a range of pests. With their predators removed, the 
pests feasted on the harvest — crowning an economic policy that resulted 
in the death of millions by starvation.

One of the highlights of “Never Out of Season” is its biological history 
of the 1845-49 Irish potato famine. Irish cultivators were at the 
cutting edge of technology, adopting the plow, monoculture and little 
genetic variation between plants. As they do today, these signatures of 
industrial agriculture both raised yields and made it more likely that a 
disease engulfing one field would engulf them all.

Potato blight was identified by biologists across Europe as Botrytis 
devastatrix. It even had a treatment. Yet the scientists who might have 
prevented the famine either silenced themselves (one because he didn’t 
want to be controversial during his nomination to the Academy of 
Sciences) or were ignored. Dunn reports that “the British government did 
not help,” but it’s a little worse than that. The British insisted that 
Ireland continue to feed the colonial metropole despite the crop 
failure. Ireland exported around 300,000 tons of grain annually from 
1846 to 1848, in the teeth of the famine. Charles Trevelyan, the British 
assistant secretary to the Treasury, received a knighthood for his 
services to the realm while Ireland starved, and wrote that as a way of 
curbing unchecked Irish population growth “the famine is a direct stroke 
of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.”

Potatoes arrived in Europe “naked,” Dunn writes, stripped of the 
sophisticated practices with which they had been cultivated by 
indigenous Americans. Conquistadors took the tubers and ignored the ways 
the plants and their diseases had been managed in complex crop rotations 
for centuries. Less contempt for indigenous science (and for the Irish 
peasantry) might have saved millions. The Irish potato famine was, then, 
the confluence of a productive hothouse ready to spread the disease, a 
spiteful colonial government and biologists unable to speak truth to 
power or to hear it spoken to them.

There are biologists today who stare into the abyss of global crop 
failure, and stand ready to protest commercial and governmental 
venality. We can hope that Dunn’s book encourages them to be less humble 
toward the interests they serve, and offer more humility toward the 
knowledge of indigenous people, on whose shoulders they stand.

Raj Patel’s latest book, “History of the World in Seven Cheap Things,” 
written with Jason W. Moore, will be published in the fall.

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