Books

The Nature of Crops by John Warren

TheNatureOfCrops I have some serious concerns about this book. My biggest is that CABI’s description of the readership being “For universities and colleges of further and higher education” might exclude it from the Royal Society’s popular science book prize. It only takes books for a general readership. This would be a pity because the book is suitable for a general reader, and it deserves the publicity boost a listing for the prize would get it.

The Nature of Crops is the book of the blog Pick of the Crop by John Warren. Altogether, it’s an exploration of why we eat the plants we do. It’s also compilation of the blog posts, with some extra material. Because it’s so similar to the blog you can get a taste of what’s covered by visiting the site. It’s not exactly the same, for example the entry on Divine Chocolate is expanded in the book, but if you’ve closely followed the blog you’ll have a sense that you’ve read many of the entries before.*

What the book adds, apart from extra text and illustrations, is context. The sections are grouped into chapters exploring similar themes. The book starts with a discussion of what domestication is, using peanuts, rye and tomatoes as examples. The next chapter looks at plants that straddle the divide between being domesticated and wild. Then the next few example show how domesticated is limited by the ways plants reproduce.

Chapter four is about storage organs, and five about complex chemicals like spices or drugs. Then follows the plants that have been domesticated by luck and the ones that seem like that can’t help but be domesticated over and over. Finally come the plants who have had a colourful economic history before the book closes with an overview chapter 50 Shades of Green.

It works, to an extent, but it doesn’t give much a sense of narrative direction. You could skip sections and still make sense of following chapters. On the other hand the writing is so rich in imagery that dipping in and out can be the easiest way to read it. The exception is the last chapter 50 Shades of Green. Here Warren tackles Jared Diamond’s arguments about plant domestication. Diamond argues that humans have pretty much domesticated everything that they could. Warren draws on the earlier chapters to show that a lot of Diamond’s assumptions are simply incorrect and pretty much demolishes Diamond’s arguments. This means that there’s still plenty of work in exploring crop potential in plants left and leaves room for new discoveries to happen.

The writing is accessible and good-humoured. At times it almost reads like an audition for QI. It would be easy to see Stephen Fry asking, “What product, controlled by the Mafia in America in the 1920s and 1930s, would later launch Marilyn Monroe’s career?” The answer is, of course, the artichoke.

It’s not a typical plant science book, though the blog description is that it is intended to amuse, entertain and educate. I could see that if you were looking for hard detail this would be frustrating, but the chapters have brief bibliographies to act as starting points for finding out more.

It’s a good read, but at £20/$40 for the paperback or £24/$37 for the Kindle it’s expensive too, though some shops like Google Play books are selling it cheaper at the moment. I wonder if the illustrations might be bulking up the file size and with it the cost in the e-version. The higher price is a pity for those who prefer e-texts over hard copies.

If price were not an issue then I’d recommend buying the book. As it is I’ll recommend you read the book, but maybe get it out of the local library.

* This raises the question did I really read the book, or save money and just read the blog? To answer that, there’s a reference on page 117 to a paper Domestication, Genomics and the Future for Banana published in a journal called Annals of botany and not Annals of Botany.

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