Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat, from Wild Grass to World Megacrop

I have regularly said that the gold and silver of the Incas and Aztecs financed the industrial revolution in Europe, but that the potato also was important. The introduction of the potato to Europe, a crop which produces more kilocalories per hectare than wheat (16m vs 10m), drove millions of peasants off the land into European cities (as food energy supplies from the potato required fewer farmers) to become the pool of cheap labour which also fuelled capitalism and the industrial revolution. Thus the Inca development of the potato over centuries, as well as their accumulation and working of gold, also changed our societies, culture and economies. This book looks like a good source of information for the role of food in capitalism.

by Catherine Zabinski

216 pages | 11 halftones | 5 x 8 | © 2020

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At breakfast tables and bakeries, we take for granted a grain that has made human civilization possible, a cereal whose humble origins belie its world-shaping power: wheat. Amber Waves tells the story of a group of grass species that first grew in scattered stands in the foothills of the Middle East until our ancestors discovered their value as a source of food. Over thousands of years, we moved their seeds to all but the polar regions of Earth, slowly cultivating what we now know as wheat, and in the process creating a world of cuisines that uses wheat seeds as a staple food. Wheat spread across the globe, but as ecologist Catherine Zabinski shows us, a biography of wheat is not only the story of how plants ensure their own success: from the earliest breads to the most mouthwatering pastas, it is also a story of human ingenuity in producing enough food for ourselves and our communities.

Since the first harvest of the ancient grain, we have perfected our farming systems to grow massive quantities of food, producing one of our species’ global megacrops—but at a great cost to ecological systems. And despite our vast capacity to grow food, we face problems with undernourishment both close to home and around the world. Weaving together history, evolution, and ecology, Zabinski’s tale explores much more than the wild roots and rise of a now ubiquitous grain: it illuminates our complex relationship with our crops, both how we have transformed the plant species we use as food, and how our society—our culture—has changed in response to the need to secure food sources. From the origins of agriculture to gluten sensitivities, from our first selection of the largest seeds from wheat’s wild progenitors to the sequencing of the wheat genome and genetic engineering, Amber Waves sheds new light on how we grow the food that sustains so much human life.

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