In February 2010, IATP Food and Society Fellow Fred Bahnson interviewed Gary Paul Nabhan, a lecturer, food and farming advocate, folklorist, and conservationist who lives and farms in the U.S. Southwest. Part I of a three-part series.

Originally published on Worldwatch Institute Nourishing the Planet.

Bahnson: Tell me about your latest book, Where Our Food Comes From—Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine. You went on quite an adventure to write this.

Nabhan: The book is about the centers of food diversity—to remind us that although we may want to eat local, we’re also indebted to farming cultures in other parts of the world, parts from which our major food crops were historically derived. Maintaining the diversity of these food crops, taking care of the hotspots of food diversity, and ensuring that the indigenous stewards of those areas maintain control of their arable lands is very, very important.

Nikolay Vavilov is one of my all-time heroes and perhaps the world’s greatest plant explorer. He was born in the 1890s, and about a century ago began to visit some 64 countries to document and gather seeds from those places. He built the first international seed bank—international in the sense that people from all countries had access to it and could draw seeds from it. Knowledge about those seeds came from the farmers in the countries of origin.

Ironically, the man who taught us the most about where our food comes from starved to death in the Soviet Gulag. Stalin needed someone to scapegoat for the famine in the early 1930s that killed 3 or 4 million people. The famine resulted from yield declines that happened after the collectivization of farms in the Soviet Union.

I’ve thought a lot about why Vavilov’s efforts failed. The political ecology of food production in Russia during that time was such that seed diversity alone could not revitalize agriculture. I think that’s true today, that seed diversity alone can’t make agriculture sustainable. You need diversity in the sizes of farms, diversity in the kinds of farmers we have, diversity in the scales of agricultural production, rather than just all small farms or all big factory farms.

In a totalitarian state, seed diversity isn’t enough to save agriculture. And I don’t mean just totalitarian states based in communism, but totalitarianism in places with capitalistic ideologies. Unless there’s a good match between food justice, food equity, and food diversity, the food system won’t be healthy.

B: Tell me about your travels to retrace Vavilov’s footsteps.

N: I got to go back to 15 of the 64 countries that Vavilov himself had collected seeds in, and see how the food diversity of those countries had changed in the intervening 75 years.

Let me first say that nearly all conservation planning, done by global conservation organizations like World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy, is focused on hotspots of biological diversity, some of which we know are in rainforest areas. These are the places most Americans hear about. But what isn’t acknowledged is that many of these places, and what I witnessed in the 11 countries I visited on my trip, is that these hotspots of diversity are not necessarily wilderness landscapes. Many of them are cultural landscapes as well. They are places where indigenous people either manage wild vegetation that has wild relatives of crops embedded in it, or the wild species are still managed and protected in cultural landscapes, cultivated landscapes, in the tilled margins, or along fence rows and hedgerows. So there’s a compatibility—I wouldn’t say harmony because that’s a loaded term—between the wild biota and the agricultural diversity.

What struck me as I traveled from Ethiopia to Colombia to Kazakhstan to northern Italy to the Sierra Madre in Mexico is that people are active managers of biological diversity, and their traditions have helped maintain this diversity in place. If we remove the people from these areas and make these places into national parks where agriculture is not allowed or indigenous communities are evicted because they’re using resources that conservationists feel should be protected, that we’ll lose more than we gain. We are creating what Mark Dowie calls “conservation refugees.”

I’m very concerned that Americans understand that the maintenance of diversity on this planet cannot be done by evicting people from those rich habitat areas, but by empowering them to be good stewards of that diversity as they have been in the past.

B: One of the themes in your Vavilov book is that of food diversity as food security.

N: The definition of food security that I like most is “affordable access of culturally appropriate, nutritious foods to diverse populations.” From working on an earlier book, Why Some Like It Hot, about the relationships between food, genes, and cultural diversity, it’s clear that the reason why most diet plans fail to help everyone who tries them is that there’s no single silver-bullet diet that will serve the broad range of ethnic populations in the world. There is no magic diet, whether it’s the South Beach diet or the Andrew Weil diet.

It’s absurd to think that there would be a one-size-fits-all diet for a population that’s so genetically diverse in its nutritional needs. On top of that, some foods are considered culturally essential to people’s identity. Take for example the packets we sent off to Haiti to help earthquake victims: we think that by giving all people rice, crackers, applesauce, and cheese in a box, that this will satisfy their nutritional needs. What if they have lactose intolerance to milk products? What if they have allergies to certain grains? If we’re really moving toward food security, we have to supply food diversity.

B: It seems obvious that people have different cultural needs with certain foods, but it’s not obvious that people have different nutritional needs based on their ethnicity.

N: Most people in the world have lactose intolerance, and it’s only people of western and northern European ancestry who have lactose tolerance. In Why Some Like It Hot, I wrote that at least one-third of the world’s population, maybe as much as half, has gene-food interactions that make it difficult for them to eat certain foods—whereas other foods serve a protective function in their diet.

Mediterranean people, for example, have a food aversion to fava beans. Eating a small amount of dried fava beans served as protection from malaria, but eating green fava beans would often cause nutritional shock and even a toxicity called “favism.” Japanese and Native Americans typically have a higher intolerance to alcohol.

To some extent, food diversity is a key food justice and food security issue. I don’t think that groups like Slow Food or Community Food Security Coalition have yet focused on that to the extent that they should. The food diversity that we’re getting into local marketplaces is sort of icing on the cake.

In the U.S. Southwest, there is a movement to bring local farmer’s markets into low-income multicultural areas in the form of Food Mobiles. These areas have a high proportion of elderly people who want to buy fresh food, but they can’t get out to the farmer’s market. So this Food Mobile, a sort of “book mobile” of food diversity, comes right to their neighborhoods. I think the real way to deal with food deserts, which unfortunately occur where we have a lot of immigrant and low-income populations, including refugees, is to provide means of giving them food options at an affordable price. These food mobiles are one way to do it.