Did you know that 10 plants make up 80% of our plant-based food supply? That the bananas we eat today were standardized in the 1960s, into one consistent strain, and that they are succumbing to a pathogen that might wipe them out? That an $8 cup of coffee is just around the corner?
Our food supply is heavily and increasingly corporate, streamlined for efficiencies from seed to store. Those efficiencies make bananas and coffee cheap; make wheat, rice, and beef prevalent; and all but guarantee that food tastes the same every time we eat – and they also mean that the foods we depend on most are one bug or virus away from disappearing.
The lesson, as told by science writer and biologist Rob Dunn through rich history and science and via characters and scenes, is to eat the way we always used to – locally, in season, and with an eye towards preserving food quality for the human race. Rigorously researched and highly provocative, this is Never Out of Season to read if you want to know about the future of our food.
"Once again Rob Dunn shows how relevant knowledge of natural history and ecology is to the environment and to the details of our personal lives."
– Edward O. Wilson, University Professor Emeritus, Harvard University
"This is a compelling, beautifully written and urgently needed book for everyone interested in the past, present and future of agriculture. By weaving together science, history and biography, Dunn will transform how you think about sustainability in an increasingly complex and precarious world in which we rely on just a few industrial crops to feed more than seven billion people."
– Daniel E. Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body
"Part cautionary tale and part call to arms, Rob Dunn's new book vividly exposes the vulnerability of our most important crops. An alarming and illuminating read."
– Thor Hanson, author of The Triumph of Seeds
"Rob Dunn is master story-teller with an insatiable curiosity, an old soul, and an absolute love of science and history. In Never Out of Season Rob combines these qualities with his deep knowledge of natural history, evolutionary biology and human behavior. The result is a book that is both of profound importance, and impossible to put down."
– Josh Tewksbury, Future Earth Research Professor, University of Colorado
"Never Out of Season is an extraordinary achievement. In it, Dunn tells the story of the most important of all human endeavors from the perspective of an ecologist. He celebrates our successes and draws lessons from our follies with equal parts humor and wit."
– Colin Khoury, International Center for Tropical Agriculture
"Nature is threatened, by our simplification of the Earth. But, as Dunn makes clear in this soon to be classic page turner of a book, this simplification of nature makes us ever more rather than less dependent on nature. This is a lesson we need to heed now at a time in which our bananas, but also our wheat, our cassava and even the rubber in our tires is threatened like never before. Everyone who eats should read Never Out of Season."
– Paul R. Ehrlich, author of Human Natures
"A convincing argument that the agricultural revolution that has made food more readily available around the world contains the seeds of its own destruction [...] An alarming account but one suggesting that, armed with knowledge, we can reverse this way of treating the plants that feed us and find a way toward a more sustainable diet."
"Forget about cooking books. This is the most important book you will read about food this year. Every single page has surprising facts and insights. The health of the planet depends on us eating more plants. But the monoculture of our foods that dominates global crops could have disastrous effects if we don't begin to think differently. Never Out of Season will change forever the way you look at a potato, a banana, or your chocolate bar."
– Peter C. Kjaergaard, Museum Director and Professor of Evolutionary History, Natural History Museum of Denmark
"Dunn [...] cautions against monoculture in this cogent and optimistic examination of our food system, arguing that having whatever food we want whenever we want isn't necessarily a good thing [...] That scientists and researchers continue to play significant roles in the fight for agricultural diversity and sustainability gives Dunn hope."
– Publishers Weekly
Year-round availability of a wide variety of food in our supermarkets has become so commonplace that it is easy to take it for granted. Sure, many of us will have given a passing thought to where our food comes from or questioned whether those organic carrots are really worth the extra pennies. But I am sure I am not alone in having a slightly cynical gut feeling that this amounts to a certain amount of greenwashing: a new sector profiteering on our concern for the environment, promising us we can buy and eat our way to redemption. This isn't helped by the fact that many proponents of organic agriculture often don't seem to really know what they are talking about and keep having misconceptions around the issue (Organic agriculture does not use pesticides? Organic produce is healthier?), and are staunchly opposed to biotechnological sciences and techniques (don't even get me started on all the opposition to GMOs – make no mistake, I am not saying there is no issue to be had with GMOs, but rarely for the reasons put forward). At least, that, in brief, is my personal opinion on these issues. All this is a long-winded introduction to say: this book made me sit up and pay attention, but for completely different reasons than I have mentioned above.
Never Out of Season starts of with a series of chapters that effectively offers cautionary tales, giving an overview of the history of plant diseases and past agricultural disasters: late blight destroying potato harvests across Europe around the 1850s and leading to the Great Famine in Ireland, coffee rust destroying coffee production in Asia and Africa at the end of the 19th century, fusarium wilt eradicating the omnipresent Gros Michel banana in the 1950s, cassava mealybug devouring cassava harvests across West Africa in the 1970s, and witches' broom causing the fall of the Brazilian cacao production empire in the 1990s. All of these are fascinating and frightening histories, told with fervour.
As Dunn makes clear in his book, we are repeating the same mistakes again and again, at ever grander scales it seems, our agricultural practices trading short-term profits and yield maximisation for long-term food security. What is remarkable is how a small number of people have been pivotal in agricultural developments, both for better or for worse. The chapters detailing the collection expeditions undertaken by the Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov – he gathered a huge variety of crops and their wild relatives – are absolutely fascinating reading, and really make me want to seek out Gary Nabhan's book Where Our Food Comes From (always a good sign). Similarly fascinating is the story of Norman Borlaug and a handful of other crop scientists who almost single-handedly precipitated the Green Revolution that led to large-scale farming with all its trappings such as pesticides, artificial fertilisers, and the rise of giant agro-industrial companies (e.g. Monsanto and DowDuPont) that monopolise seed sales to farmers.
What most urgently stands out in this narrative is how chronically underfunded and undervalued basic scientific research is. For so many pathogens we know so little and we are at the mercy of a few knowledgeable people if a new plant pest emerges. So many crop varieties and their wild relatives are poorly known and are rapidly being lost forever as we lose biodiversity around the globe. All of these have the potential of providing new food sources when our current crop varieties will inevitably succumb to new insect pests or pathogens. What I found most heartbreaking of all to read is Dunn's sober finding that a whole generation of plant pathologists, taxonomists, entomologists, and curators of seed banks are retiring or dying, and that with them, their knowledge is lost. This research is not sexy, it is not profitable, it requires large amounts of repetitive monk-like work to catalogue our biodiversity, to create and curate seed banks. But it is vital for our survival. As Dunn makes abundantly clear in this book, we subsist on a declining diversity of food (only fifteen species provide us with 90% of our calories. Fifteen!), and we are more numerous than ever before. The next agricultural disaster, the next big famine has the potential to kill hundreds of millions, if not billions, if we do not invest in our food's future now.
This is what made me sit up and pay attention. This it what made me rethink my own prejudices where organic agriculture is concerned. I cannot think of a higher accolade for a book. Never Out of Season has an urgent message – justifying the rather ominous subtitle – and deserves to be read by a wide audience. It is why I wish every politician and policy maker responsible for science funding and agriculture would read this book. I certainly did not expect a book about agriculture to be such a page-turner.
Rob Dunn is a professor in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University and in the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, and Every Living Thing, and his magazine work is published widely, including in National Geographic, Natural History, New Scientist, Scientific American, and Smithsonian. He has a PhD from the University of Connecticut and was a Fulbright Fellow. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.