Amber Waves: The extraordinary biography of wheat, from wild grass to world megacrop by Catherine Zabinski 2020. The University of Chicago Press.
Biographies are usually written about people. However, Catherine Zabinski’s Amber Waves [which book is here appraised] goes one better and writes about a plant, as its sub-title – The extraordinary biography of wheat, from wild grass to megacrop – makes clear. And why not? Etymologically, the term biography is derived comes from two Ancient Greek words, βίος (bíos, “life”) and γράφω (gráphō, “write”), or, bios “life” and graphia “record, account”. A biography is therefore just a written account of a life, which can be a person’s, another animal’s, or a plant’s – as here.
A biography of wheat…
The essence of a biography is to place the life of its subject matter into context, in particular the times that it has experienced and been affected by. And that is exactly what Zabinski has skilfully done for wheat, placing the development of this plant in the context of its interactions with people. And what a life and times wheat has had and been witness to! Not only has its own life journey been influenced by people, but in its turn this plant has had major impacts upon the lives of people. Or, and why not use the author’s own words, “this biography will take you from the origins of the first plants up to the current days; it’s about the evolution of plants, the ways our ancestors used the tiny grass seeds to feed themselves, and the challenges of agriculture in a world where our population doubles in less than a century. This biography travels the globe, because our species has transported wheat to all but the polar continents. A biography of wheat, then, is not just about the plants. It’s also about us, our societies, and how we manage our food” (p. 5).
What’s it about?
Amber Waves is an account of the domestication of wheat and the role this cereal has played in our development as a species. Although the story of the advent of agriculture has been written many times before, Zabinski imbues her retelling of that ground-breaking event with a freshness that makes it feel like it’s the first time one’s heard it. At the centre of her story of wheat is Abu Hureyra, an ancient site in present day Syria (albeit now at the bottom of Lake Assad) which typifies a location where cereal- – and lentil- – based agriculture began 13,000 years ago. Located in the famous Fertile Crescent region, Zabinski’s almost poetic prose paints a portrait of the place and its people and provides a plausible account of how an agriculturalised community might have developed. Many environmental and biological ‘ingredients’ came together in that region that facilitated the advent of grass domestication, and they are all explored by Zabinski and expertly woven together to produce a whole meal that is both satisfying and entirely believable. From that starting point the story of wheat and humanity extends across the globe via its adoption and expansion from the Middle East throughout Europe to North America and south of the Equator alongside increasingly technological advances in cereal agriculture.
This book has great plants-and-people credentials
In telling the story of the dawn of wheat agriculture and its role in development of human civilisation, Zabinski hasn’t provided yet another dry academic account. Instead, she has written a story that’s highly informative, and educational, with accessible imagery and analogies. The book is easy to read – surely an indication of how hard the author has worked to make it so – and a particularly stylish piece of narrative is in Chapter 7 where Zabinski effortlessly moves from America’s dry-farming movement (e.g. Mary Hargreaves, Journal d’agriculture traditionnelle et de botanique appliquée 24(2-3): 213-232, 1977; https://doi.org/10.3406/jatba.1977.3285); John Widtsoe, 2002) to the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and his Hunger Plan of World War II, and on to US food exports becoming an important part of global food security. Amber Waves provides a thoughtful account of societal structural changes and consequences as a result of crop domestication and humankind’s early farming attempts. Because domestication of wheat permitted profound changes to human development, its effects can be found in many aspects of human existence. Zabinski is well aware of this and the topics touched upon in Amber Waves range widely and include: Economics, sociology, evolution, commerce, genetics, crop-husbandry, archaeology, climate, ecology, deep-time, agricultural technology, Green Revolution, anthropology, geography, history, urbanisation, civilisation, politics, and the ‘weaponisation’ of wheat **. Amber Waves delivers a wheat’s eye view of the past and present state of humanity (and provides a glimpse at its future), and is a very worthy addition to the plants-and-people literature.
This book also has a lot of science
Because Amber Waves is written by a scientist, who is a professor of plant and soil ecology at Montana State University, the science aspects of wheat’s story are not ignored. In fact they are a major part of the story and are particularly well dealt with – and in a way that should be accessible to and understandable by a lay audience. In particular, there is a masterful account of the hybridization and chromosome-multiplication events that took us from einkorn to bread wheat – and all done within a single page of text. Zabinski is also adept at explaining Barbara McClintock’s work on ‘jumping genes’ (Leslie Pray & Kira Zhaurova (2008), Nature Education 1(1): 169; Sandeep Ravindran (PNAS 109: 20198-20199, 2012; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1219372109) and the role of transposons (Leslie Pray (2008) Nature Education 1(1): 204) in the story of wheat (Thomas Wicker et al., Genome Biol 19, 103 (2018); https://doi.org/10.1186/s13059-018-1479-0), the importance of selective breeding, wheat selection, and Mendel’s pea experiments. She is equally skilful at writing about genetic engineering approaches, and provides a most informative account of the various ways glyphosate-resistant weeds (e.g. Chris Boerboom & Micheal Owen; Stephen Powles, Pest Manag Sci 64(4): 360-365, 2008; doi: 10.1002/ps.1525) work. And, because they provide important context to the story, Zabinksi also gives us an understandable account of endosymbiosis and origin of chloroplasts, plant’s transition to land, and photosynthesis (both C3 and C4). Finally, for good measure and because the book looks forwards as well as backwards, Zabinski discusses the prospects of perennial wheat crops in future and – new to me – gives an account of Kernza (a perennial cereal), and the MT-2 hybrid (a cross between durum wheat and perennial wheatgrass) (Lei Cui et al., Engineering 4(4): 507-513, 2018; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eng.2018.07.003). The science is there; as is the communication. But, how does Amber Waves fare as communication of science, SciComm (Terry Burns et al., Public Understanding of Science 12: 183-202, 2003; https://doi.org/10.1177/09636625030122004)?
Assessing Amber Waves’ SciComm potential
Science is a body of knowledge that has accumulated over hundreds of years by the incremental addition of information and data by many individuals, and is based upon evidence. Without evidence to support any science-derived statement it is not science but something quite different. That evidence base is therefore essential to elevate the ‘s’ in science to the ‘S’ in SciComm. Doesn’t Amber Waves provide that? My answer has to be a qualified ‘sort of’. Amber Waves , as one is seeing more and more these days in fact-based plant biology books, includes super-scripted Numbers within the main text. Those Numbers relate to Notes – by Chapter – in a separate section towards the back of the book. Sometimes there will be mention of a source for the information expanded upon in the Note. I haven’t checked every entry, but where a source is mentioned I expect it will have been included in the Bibliography – listed alphabetically in chapter order after the Notes section. What’s the problem? On several occasions Notes have added useful information that support and expanded upon the main text, but have not indicated a source – e.g. Notes 2, 5, and 6 re Chapter 1, Notes 2, and 4 re Chapter 2. Whilst I’m prepared to believe that some – if not all – of the ‘missing’ sources may be present in the Bibliography, it would be a great service to the reader to have that made explicit by citing them in the relevant Note. That’s one issue I have. The other is that there need to be many more Notes’ Numbers in-text; generally, the Numbers are far too few-and-far between and many statements are therefore made in the main text with no Number(s) attached. For instance, the tale of the peppered moth [you’ll need to read the book for its relevance to be appreciated…] on pages 45/6 is un-numbered. The information provided by Zabinski will have been based on the work of others, which ought to be appropriately credited. I know that there is what looks like an appropriate source listed in the Bibliography that probably deals with at least some of that moth material – Cook et al. (2012) on p. 216. But, why not make all of those connections explicit? It would not only have been much appreciated by this reader, but would have elevated the SciComm credentials of this important book to the next level, allowing all to fully reap the rewards of its evident scholarship. Is it important? Should one show one’s sources in such a book? Anybody who’s read anything of mine recently will know the answer to that question (see here for a reminder): The very short answer is YES. But, don’t necessarily take my word for it, please read this timely and relevant blog entry by Josh Bernoff.
As Zabinksi notes, “The story of wheat has become inextricably intertwined with our human story” (p. 85), and “As with most relationships, our relationship with wheat has grown more complex with time” (p. 83). Both of which statements are true, and justification enough for Amber Waves to have been written. However, as she acknowledges, “Its story isn’t entirely unique; we could tell a similar tale about rice and corn” (p. 189). And if those stories can be written by one who does as well as Zabinski has done with wheat, they would be important stories worth the (re)telling – and the reading. Until they appear, I urge you to read Amber Waves by Catherine Zabinski, which is an excellent example of plants-and-people writing – and is also pretty good SciComm…
** One shouldn’t really criticise a book for what’s not there – unless it’s a comment about deficiencies in joined-upness of facts-and-sources. But, given the tremendous scope and breadth of issues otherwise covered in Amber Waves, I was a little surprised that there was no mention of wheat/bread shortages and their contribution to the 21st century phenomenon known as the Arab Spring (e.g. here, here, and in Troy Sternberg (Applied Geography 34: 519-524, 2012; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apgeog.2012.02.004).