It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, in part because I’ve been in rural Uganda researching mobile phones. It was also a good opportunity to see subsistence farming close up, and find out what farmers in the developing world are doing on the ground. Anyway, in the past month the Los Angeles Times has run a Q&A with me in which I am described, strangely, as “the ultimate foodie”. Time Out picked “Edible History” as one of its “best new food books”. The Guardian ran a favourable review. The Daily Telegraph picked up the “farming was a big mistake” discussion. The Financial Times included the book in its “hottest holiday reading” selection.
I also wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times, drawing parallels between 18th-century concerns about the potato and modern worries about genetically modified crops. Yup, historical analogy again. There was one point I didn’t have room for, which is worth mentioning. I am in favour of GM in theory although, as I note in the piece, so far the technology has not really delivered the goods in practice. That said, I think one of the risks of an over-reliance on GM is that monocultures are vulnerable to the appearance of an unexpected disease or predator. The Irish Potato Famine is, of course, the single best example of the danger of monocultures in food history. So that’s another lesson from the history of the potato.
How can we learn from it? What we need is lots of different GM crops to provide variety, rather than dominance of a few strains from a couple of big companies. And there’s no reason, as I point out, why future GM crops might not come from government research labs, which could do a lot to neutralise anti-capitalist opposition to GM. If the government of Mexico or India, say, produces a GM wheat that is drought-tolerant and requires very little fertiliser or pesticide, gives away the seeds to farmers and allows them to reuse seeds from one year to the next, wouldn’t that be a good thing?