WHY I WROTE HYBRID – THE HISTORY AND SCIENCE OF PLANT BREEDING
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.