Our Daily Bread: A History of Cereals

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Published December 13, 2013
book review
Our Daily Bread: A History of Cereals
Åsmund Bjørnstad, 2012.Vidarforlaget AS, Oslo,
Norway. 271 pp, NOK 399 [US$66], hard cover. ISBN
978-827-990-1310. [Translated from Norwegian,
VårtDaglegeBrød, Vidarforlaget AS, 2010]
lthough most applied plant geneticists and plant
breeders are immersed in a version of art in their
choices of parental lines and selections of new cultivars,
few of us demonstrate our literary talents and historical
perspectives in the eloquent manner displayed in Our
Daily Bread. This magnificent book by wheat breeder and
geneticist Åsmund Bjørnstad of the Norwegian University
of Life Sciences provides a fitting and practical history of
cereals, as well as a stunning visual chronicle of the crops
and the people who selected them. The book describes the
long histories of the cereal crops– and a brief description
of potatoes– on which nearly all of humankind depends
for the bulk of their nutrition and caloric energy, as well as
the rich context of their development. This plural emphasis reflects many complex anthropologic, cultural, political, religious/spiritual, and biological relationships among
plants, local environments, and humans that have shaped
and continue to impact agriculture. Seeds of major cereals, in fact, provide a biological and cultural link across
generations of plants and people, and, consequently, have
also shaped and are continuing to impact our civilizations.
Co-evolutions of plants and people, from wild plant races
and hunter-gatherers to mutually co-dependent species,
occurred in Southwest Asia with wheat, in Southeast Asia
with rice, and in Central America and the Andean Zone
with maize.
In “The Diversity of Grains,” the author provides
short histories, photos, and drawings of the major cereals,
along with the sources of their names and their genetics.
In this elegant and well illustrated section, there is detailed
description of the history of grains and their relationship
to the origins of organized farming. Then, in “Grains
and Civilization,” there is historical perspective on the
crop science, vol. 54, january–february 2014 importance of each cereal species in the social and religious
lives of people, while being central, as well, to their
nutrition. Reproductions of historical woodcuts, important
paintings, and photos of museum pieces add to the artistic
illustration of the text, and frequent sidebars with poems
and literature quotes broaden the integration of science
with the arts and their descriptions of life. The origins of
wheat, rice, and maize receive particular attention because
of their importance in the global human diet.
One highlight of the book, and a theme that persists,
is Bjørnstad’s attention to biodiversity and its importance
to the well-being of humans and the ecosystems in which
they are imbedded. Too often, we think of biodiversity as
merely the multiplicity of species occupying an ecological
niche, as, for example, we think about the charismatic
mega-herbivores on the plains of Africa, in the U.S.
Great Plains, or the rain forests of the tropics. While that
biodiversity is critical to health of our global ecosystem,
it is equally important to understand and maintain the
genetic variability within our major crop species, because
it is this diversity that provides the essential raw genetic
material that enables nature and our human efforts to
change crops to meet changing needs and environments.
This requires a whole different level of commitment to
retaining large populations in nature, as well as in gene
banks, of important species.
The author makes a compelling case for looking
beyond how we exploit diversity for our short-term
wants and needs. Ironically, this demands that humans
must simultaneously increase agricultural productivity in
regions already developed for farming, and at the same time
Published in Crop Sci 54:453–454 (2014).
doi: 10.2135/cropsci2013.07.0450br
© Crop Science Society of America
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All rights reserved. No part of this periodical may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without
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reprinting the material contained herein has been obtained by the publisher.
avoid the destruction of remaining natural environments
where much biodiversity can be preserved. Logically, this
dual mission will require the use of biodiversity within our
crop species as well as other species not yet “domesticated”,
a vast resource bequeathed to us by nature and by our
distant ancestors.
The histories of our civilizations are inseparable from
the grains and foods that supported them— wheats and
barley in western Asia, barley and rye in eastern Europe,
oats and rye in northern Europe, rice in eastern/southern
Asia, sorghum/millets/t’ef in Africa, and maize and
potatoes in the Americas. In each of these regions, both
bread and beer– ‘which came first’ is an open question—
became essential to survival. Crops were selected to
improve the quality of food and drink developed from
them, as well as their potential for storage through periods
of nonproduction and crisis—drought, pestilence, famine,
war, migration/exploration. In addition, the migrations of
people and crop plants have added immeasurable richness
to our existence—and in some cases, caused dependence
on a single crop species whose failure has led to great
suffering. The Colombian exchange of potato, tomato,
and maize to the Old World and wheat, rice, sugarcane,
and other crops to the New World opened whole eras
of opportunity and disaster. Bjørnstad also speaks to
the quality issues necessary for making food products,
especially good bread and beer, the development of both
genetics and processing technology, and their effects on
human health, culture, and history.
A portion of the book is devoted to the key question:
“Will there be enough grain in our times”? Bjørnstad traces
most of the key technologies we have used—nitrogen and
phosphorous fertilizers, hybridization, irrigation, and
both traditional and transgenic genetic modification—
to achieve increased productivity, noting that all of
them will be important to a food-secure future. He also
briefly discusses the role of current high grain prices as
a contributor to political instability, and the present
conundrum of simultaneous food scarcity and obesity
issues. The stories, the illustrations, the poems, and the
rich diversity of information and methods of presentation
make this book unique in the field of agriculture, and its
unique integration of culture with agriculture creates a
volume that is readily accessible to the lay reader who is
interested in our human history as well as the crops that
have supported us.
This book should be a valuable addition to the
bookshelf of anyone involved in the food and agriculture
industries, anthropologists, historians, and humanists. It
could serve as a textbook or supplemental reference for a
course in agronomy, food science, anthropology, history,
or any integrative education in these fields. While carefully
noting the Nordic roles in many grain crops, the book
provides a wide perspective on all these topics. Written
in Norwegian, the English translation is highly readable
and fluid. It is literally a beautiful book, sumptuously
illustrated with pictures, art, and lithographs. Simply
studying the illustrations and reading the footnotes will
provide hours of pleasure. The affordability of the book at
$66 is an additional attraction.
Thomas Hoegemeyer, Charles Francis,* and Stephen Baenziger
University of Nebraska– Lincoln, NE, 68583-0910
*Corresponding author ([email protected]).
crop science, vol. 54, january–february 2014

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