Gary Paul Nabhan
My name is Gary Paul Nabhan, and for well over half my life, I have been chasing the shadows and seeds of the great plant explorer Nikolay Vavilov. In 1976, when I entered graduate school in agricultural sciences at the University of Arizona — where Vavilov himself spoke in 1930 — a friend met me in the library holding up a large book in front of him. It was a 1950 volume of Chronica Botanica which held the selected writings of Nikolay Vavilov. “Read this if you want to be inspired to be a truly creative agricultural scientist,” my friend said.
I did indeed read the book, paying particular attention to the essays on the origins of cultivated plants. Within two years, I had begun to publish on the domestication and diversity within the gene pools of two crops that Vavilov had held within his own hands in the North American deserts: the tepary bean (Phaseolus acutifolius) and martynia or devil’s claw (Proboscidea parviflora).
I set out to focus on conserving in situ and ex situ the plant diversity of the North American deserts. I co-founded Native Seeds/SEARCH, which has involved dozens of Native Americans as board, staff and interns in safeguarding the food plant heritage of the American desert cultures. I also participated in plant explorations organized by the USDA, the Mexican government, FAO and Bioversity International. But I didn’t get to fully follow in Vavilov’s footsteps in other parts of the world until I met Dr Ken Wilson, the Executive Director of the Christensen Fund.
In 2005, Ken suggested that I consider taking time off to retrace Vavilov through the centres of diversity which he first described. Armed with Vavilov’s own field notes and photos kindly provided by Bioversity and VIR staff in St Petersburg, I set out to visit eleven countries where Vavilov’s field observations were detailed enough to allow me to detect any changes in diversity that had occurred over this past century. I also visited marketplaces, interviewed farmers and entered into extended dialogues with some of the great scientists who carry on Vavilov’s legacy. I was also honored to have spoken with Nikolay Vavilov’s surviving son, Dr Yuri Vavilov.
Advancing Vavilov’s vision is now more necessary than ever before. It will take farmers and scientists working together to safeguard the seed diversity of many cultures, not only in the fields of their origin where they are critically needed to respond and adapt to rapid climate change, but also in back-up storage where they can be buffered from catastrophic events.