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You are what you eat

For Gary Paul Nabhan, every dinner tells a story.

Muslim and Christian farmers collaborating to protect a wetland in war-torn Lebanon, the high culinary and agricultural aims of the Slow Food USA movement, prehistoric Floridians traveling to the Yucatan to bring back the first chili and squash plants to what's now the United States — all that, and much more, finds a place on his plate.

Studying food and culture is not only an academic pursuit. "In the future I think the issues will be more and more about food security," Nabhan says. "It's not just a buzzword. There have been food riots in 32 countries in the last year. In this country, people are using food banks and food stamps at levels never seen before.

"These are all little glimpses of the magnitude of the problem."

In a career spanning three decades, the globe-trotting ethnobiologist and author has savored the complex connections between who we are and what we eat — and served up what he has found in more than 20 books. His work has earned him a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing, the Lannan Literary Award and many more accolades.

Nabhan will present a talk Monday night at Eckerd College on "Protecting Sacred Lands and Species: Collaborative Conservation With a Spiritual Basis in the Middle East."

The subject is an example of sustainable agriculture based on centuries-old cultural traditions. "It grew out of my experience in the Middle East seeing Muslim and Christian farmers working together to protect the springs they use during droughts," Nabhan says by phone from Tucson, Ariz., where he is a research social scientist at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona.

"These are the collaborations we don't hear about here. A lot of people think Muslims never talk to Christians, and vice versa. Certainly sometimes the tension and grief stop the conversation. But if people live together in a village or a watershed, sooner or later they figure out a way to talk."

Talking about food — how we grow it, how we eat it, how it shapes everything from our health to our economy — is the core of Nabhan's work.

His research into traditional farming methods and foodways is a search not only for history but for solutions to very immediate problems.

Over the last century, industrialized agriculture has pushed out traditional methods all over the planet, resulting in a dramatic loss of biodiversity in food plants and animals, displacement of traditional farming communities and environmental damage from intensive monocropping, petroleum-based fertilizers and other techniques.

The dietary changes that have resulted from industrialized agriculture have been just as problematical — soaring rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related illnesses being just one of the most familiar examples.

Does that mean we all need to go back to growing our own beans in the backyard?

"I think we'll see more mixing and matching in agriculture, just like people have done with health care," Nabhan says. "They still go to their family doctor with the high-tech equipment, but they also use more holistic approaches."

Already organic farming and other sustainable methods are becoming popular again. "These things are not just for the elite or the lunatic fringe anymore. But it will have to be done not just by small farmers but by mid-scale farmers — of which there are a lot in Florida — for this to work."

Nabhan's most recent book, Where Our Food Comes From (Island Press, 2008), recounts the amazing story of pioneering Russian botanist Nikolay Vavilov's globe-circling efforts to gather a seed bank so extensive that it was one of Hitler's main targets during the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Nabhan traveled in Vavilov's footsteps and found, in half a century, striking changes in agriculture on five continents.

Some of those changes are devastating, but some are for the better. "We've lost a lot of people in farming" because of the domination of industrial agriculture, "but the ones who are left are very adaptable and very smart. They also work a lot harder than most of us do."

Motivating farmers and consumers to grow, buy and eat better is essential, Nabhan says, and he sees some promising signs, like the new White House garden that first lady Michelle Obama planted recently.

"I got 25 e-mails about that if I got one," Nabhan says. "It's really giving people a sense of the importance of this. It's not going to solve the problem of food security, of course. But as a symbolic gesture that we have a first family that cares about these issues, it's important."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

. If you go

Saving sacred lands, species

Ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan will speak on "Protecting Sacred Lands and Species: Collaborative Conservation with a Spiritual Basis in the Middle East" at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Fox Hall on the Eckerd College campus, 4200 54th Ave. S St. Petersburg. The event is free.

On the Web

For information about Nabhan's work and books, go to

You are what you eat 03/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 30, 2009 11:11am]
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