Never Out of Season

How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future


By Rob Dunn

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The bananas we eat today aren’t your parents’ bananas: We eat a recognizable, consistent breakfast fruit that was standardized in the 1960s from dozens into one basic banana. But because of that, the banana we love is dangerously susceptible to a pathogen that might wipe them out.

That’s the story of our food today: Modern science has brought us produce in perpetual abundance once-rare fruits are seemingly never out of season, and we breed and clone the hardiest, best-tasting varieties of the crops we rely on most. As a result, a smaller proportion of people on earth go hungry today than at any other moment in the last thousand years, and the streamlining of our food supply guarantees that the food we buy, from bananas to coffee to wheat, tastes the same every single time. Our corporate food system has nearly perfected the process of turning sunlight, water and nutrients into food.

But our crops themselves remain susceptible to the nature’s fury. And nature always wins. Authoritative, urgent, and filled with fascinating heroes and villains from around the world, Never Out of Season is the story of the crops we depend on most and the scientists racing to preserve the diversity of life, in order to save our food supply, and us.



A Banana in Every Bowl

What a trifling difference must often determine which shall survive, and which perish!

—Charles Darwin, in a letter to Asa Gray

Our hunger has shaped the earth in much the way that the hunger of a caterpillar remakes a leaf.

Thirteen thousand years ago, each of our ancestors consumed hundreds of different kinds of plants and animals in a week.1 Like wild chimpanzees and rats, they ate what could be found. Diets varied with the seasons. One berry in June, another in July. One insect when the rivers ran deep, other insects when they were dry. The species chosen also varied among cultures and regions. If you knew what a person was eating for dinner you could probably figure out what time of year it was and where that person was living. Not anymore.

With the spread of agriculture, the diversity of foods consumed globally was reduced. With the globalization of agriculture, it was reduced further and homogenized—made the same from one place to another. Humans now subsist on a declining diversity of foods. In 2016, the supply of calories to humans around the world was less diverse than it had ever been. Scientists have named and studied more than three hundred thousand living plant species. Yet 80 percent of the calories consumed by humans came from just twelve species and 90 percent from fifteen species. Our dependence on these foods has simplified the landscape of the earth. There are now more acres of corn than acres of wild grassland.

Global estimates of the composition of the average human meal hide the reality that the diets of people in some regions are even less diverse than average. In the Congo basin, for example, more than 80 percent of calories in people's diets come from a single crop, cassava (also known as yuca or manioc). In parts of China, rice accounts for nearly all calories consumed. In North America, more than half the carbon in the average child's body comes from corn—corn syrup, cornflakes, cornbread. Corn kids. And in the United States, the poorer and more urban those kids are, the more corn-dependent they are likely to be; that is, the more each and every one of their cells is likely to contain carbon atoms derived from either corn or sugarcane (another source of sugar).2 Biodiversity provides the richness of life: a richness in species, ways of living, flavors, aromas, and attributes. What we now face is the opposite of biodiversity—a state of extreme monotony that is putting us at risk. Consider the banana.

Figure 1. Proportion of global plant-based calories consumed by humans as a function of various plant sources. Sugar is derived from multiple plant sources, including sugar beets and sugarcane. The vast majority of domesticated plant species play a very small role on the global plate. Data are drawn from Colin K. Khoury, et al., "Increasing Homogeneity in Global Food Supplies and the Implications for Food Security," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 11 (March 18, 2014): 4001–6.

On a plate, a single banana seems whimsical—yellow and sweet, contained in its own easy-to-open peel. It is a charming breakfast luxury as silly as it is delicious and ever-present. Yet when you eat a banana the flavor on your tongue has complex roots, equal parts sweetness and tragedy.

In 1950, most bananas were exported from Central America. Guatemala in particular was a key piece of a vast empire of banana plantations run by the American-owned United Fruit Company. United Fruit Company paid Guatemala's government modest sums in exchange for land. With the land, United Fruit planted bananas and then did as it pleased. It exercised absolute control not only over what workers did but also over how and where they lived. In addition, it controlled transportation, constructing, for example, the first railway in the country, one that was designed to be as useless as possible for the people of Guatemala and as useful as possible for transporting bananas. The company's profits were immense. In 1950, its revenues were twice the gross domestic product of the entire country of Guatemala. Yet while the United Fruit Company invested greatly in its ability to move bananas, little was invested in understanding the biology of bananas themselves.

United Fruit and the rest of the banana industry did what industries do. They figured out how to do one thing well—in this case, grow one variety of banana, the Gros Michel. Moreover, because it is difficult to get domesticated bananas to have sex (they are puritan in their proclivities, blessed with virtually no seeds), the Gros Michel was reproduced via suckers, clonally.3 Cuttings from the best specimens were replanted. As a result, virtually all bananas grown in Guatemala, in Latin America in general, and around the world for export were genetically identical. Identical in the way that identical human twins are identical and even a tiny bit more so. For industry, this was great. Bananas were predictable. Each was like each other. No banana was ever the wrong size, the wrong flavor, the wrong anything.

It is hard to overestimate how unusual the situation of bananas in the middle of the last century was—unusual not just in the history of humanity but also in the history of life. There is a patch of aspen trees in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah that many argue is the largest living organism on earth. It comprises some thirty-seven thousand trees, each of which is genetically the same as the other, and the argument goes that the trees, collectively, represent a single organism because they are identical and connected by their roots. But requiring pieces of an organism to be connected in order to be considered part of a collective is arbitrary. The ants in an ant colony, for example, are clearly part of the colony, even when they're not physically in the nest. All this is to say that an argument can be made that large groups of genetically identical plants, even if not connected, may reasonably be considered a single organism. If one makes such an argument, the banana plantations of Central America in the 1950s were not only the largest collective organism alive at that point, they also may well have been the largest collective organism ever to live.

Economically, growing just a single clone of bananas was genius. Biologically, it posed problems. These problems had already been noted, for example, in the British production and export of coffee in the 1800s. At that time, the British drank coffee, not tea. They drank coffee exported from their colony Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Early on in Ceylon, coffee plantations were planted among wild forests.4 When the British took Ceylon from the Dutch in 1797, they began to expand coffee production on the island. Investment in the coffee plantations by the English, both at home and abroad, "was unlimited; and in its profusion was equaled… only by the ignorance and inexperience of those to whom it was entrusted." As the demand for coffee increased, it was planted in large monocultures—that is, vast areas of only a single variety of tree. Coffee on one hill, coffee on the next. Not a taller, wilder tree to be seen. There were 160,000 hectares of the central uplands planted in coffee. The coffee brought real affluence—banks, roads, hotels, and luxury. It was an unbridled success, or seemed to be.

Harry Marshall Ward, a British fungal biologist visiting Ceylon in 1887, warned farmers that farming such large plantations of a single variety of coffee would cause problems. Pests and pathogens, once they arrived in the plantations, would devour them. This was, he thought, particularly true of coffee rust, which was already present in Ceylon, but it would also be true of any other pest or pathogen that arrived. Nothing would stop such an organism from quickly devouring all the trees, since they were all of the same variety—and thus equally susceptible to whatever threat might arise or arrive—and planted very close together. This is exactly what happened. Coffee rust wiped out the coffee of Ceylon and, subsequently, much of the rest of the coffee of Asia and Africa.5 Coffee growers replanted with tea.

Ward had predicted that the coffee of Ceylon would be devastated. As the plantations of bananas expanded across the American tropics, scientists made similar predictions. These scientists noted that in the native range of bananas lived a great diversity. There were big ones, small ones, sweet ones, sour ones, hard ones, soft ones, bananas as dessert, and bananas—plantains, really—consumed as sustenance. In those same regions one could also find an extraordinary diversity of pathogens. But in the cultivated world of bananas, the scientists pointed out, because a single genetically identical variety of banana was planted everywhere, were any banana-attacking pathogen to arrive, it would mean trouble. Any pathogen that could attack a single banana plant, even one, would be able to kill all of them. If the banana companies had listened to these warnings, they might have planted a diversity of banana varieties or a variety that would be resistant to the most likely pathogens. But why would they? The single clone of the Gros Michel banana was the most productive anyone had ever found. Planting anything else would mean losing money.

Then the inevitable happened. A malady arrived—Panama disease (now more often called fusarium wilt), caused by the pathogen Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense. Panama disease started to wipe out banana plantations in 1890.6 Nothing precluded its spread or even promised to slow it. Seen from above, the plantations across Latin America started to look like the lights had been turned off. Patches of bright green went black. Whole landscapes went black. In the Ulua valley of Honduras alone, thirty thousand acres were infected and abandoned within the first year in which Panama disease arrived. Nearly all the banana plantations in Guatemala were devastated and, once devastated, abandoned, because it was quickly figured out that the pathogen, having arrived, could lurk in the soil for years (or even, as we now know, decades).

United Fruit Company's leaders believed that if they were able to find another banana, one that vaguely resembled the Gros Michel but was resistant to the pathogen, it could be planted on the abandoned land and the banana empire could be restored. This plan, however, was based on a farcical set of assumptions. It assumed that consumers would simply accept whatever banana you sold them as long as it looked more or less the same. In addition, it overlooked the reality that no replacement banana had yet turned up—no good option, anyway. The only banana that seemed both pathogen-resistant and similar to the Gros Michel was a banana called the Cavendish. The Cavendish tasted very different from the Gros Michel. It had "off flavors" and was less sweet. What it had going for it, though, was that you could plant it even where Panama disease was present in the soil and it wouldn't die (and it still doesn't).

Over the next several years, the Cavendish banana would prove to be the only banana that both looked like the Gros Michel and would resist Panama disease. So it was that without any other real options, and having helped to overthrow a democratically elected government7 so as to continue to be able to produce cheap bananas, the United Fruit Company started to plant the Cavendish across hundreds of thousands and then millions of acres. They then began to export it to the United States, along with a massive advertising campaign lauding the benefits of the banana. It worked. Just as the British had earlier switched from coffee to tea (substituting one caffeinated drink in a cup for another), Americans switched from the Gros Michel banana to the Cavendish. The advertising was so good that the new banana, the Cavendish, was even more successful commercially than had been its predecessor, the Gros Michel. Bolstering the Cavendish's sales was the shift of American populations to cities, where the connection between what consumers bought and what grew well locally had been severed. Sales of the Cavendish banana were strong, and they continue to be. It is with very few exceptions the only kind of banana you find in stores outside the regions where bananas grow.8 Its success fuels the economies of whole countries. It is the biggest export of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, and Belize and the second most valuable export for Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras.9 If you were born after 1950, you are unlikely to have ever purchased any banana other than the Cavendish clone—other than what is now the world's largest organism. To the extent that anyone worried about diseases affecting the Cavendish, it was because of black leaf streak (Mycosphaerella fijiensis), which was not nearly as bad as Panama disease. Panama disease, meanwhile, had become a thing of the past. The Cavendish remained resistant in part because the pathogen itself is not very diverse and so relatively unable to adapt.

Industry, we learn from the story of the Cavendish banana, will plant the crop that grows most easily and supply it to us whenever we want. It will encourage us to want it all the time. It will tend to plant crops in ways that produce the greatest yield, even if that mode of production has costs; even if it also puts the very crop the industry depends on at risk. Cavendish bananas are all genetically identical. Each banana you buy in the store is the clone of the one next to it. Every banana plant being grown for export is really part of the same plant, a collective organism larger than any other on earth, far bigger than the clonal groves of aspens. This giant organism is now at risk of exactly the same sort of population crash that befell the Gros Michel, and a new strain of Fusarium, a close relative of the pathogen that causes Panama disease, has evolved. It can kill both Gros Michel and Cavendish bananas. This strain has already spread from Asia to East Africa and seems likely to make its way to Central America. This should be extremely worrisome. But what should be more worrisome is that the same is true of most of our crops, most of the plants that we most depend on, a list of species that is shockingly and increasingly short.

The simplification of the agricultural world and our diets has come with benefits. They are the same benefits that accrued to the United Fruit Company (rebranded in 1984 as Chiquita Brands International, a.k.a. Chiquita)—the ability to produce a large amount of food on a given area of land. In concert with the homogenization of agriculture, we have figured out how to grow more food per acre than ever before—ten times more food than ten thousand years ago, perhaps a hundred times more than fifteen thousand years ago. As a result, a smaller number of people on earth go hungry today than at any other moment in the last thousand years. Modern science has brought us food in abundance, just as it brought the United Fruit Company affluence. Yet this abundance, like the affluence of modern banana companies, is tenuous, dependent on our ability to protect the very few species on which we now depend. The problem is that nearly all those key species are in trouble, because in simplifying the production of our food we achieved short-term benefits at the expense of long-term benefits—and, for that matter, at the expense of long-term sustainability.

The problem we face is the consequence of the preferences of our brains, reinforced by the incentives of industry. We live in a thoroughly modern world with brains and bodies that evolved in an environment where sweets, fats, proteins, and salt were all hard to get. We have simple ape brains and simpler ape nervous systems. Our ancestors evolved taste buds that rewarded them when they found food that provided these necessities. Our environment has changed. Our needs have changed. But our taste buds remain the same. We experience pleasure when we eat these substances, our body's way to reward us for having found them. Our brains, meanwhile, are wired to spot shiny, bright fruits. As a result, the world we were most likely to create is one in which our foods appeal simply to these ancient preferences. This is precisely what we have done and precisely what one encounters in the grocery store, where the foods in the greatest abundance are now perfectly matched to our ancient needs despite our modern waistlines. Inasmuch as we demand (or at least buy) the same things regardless of the time of year, the foods in the grocery store are never out of season. What's more, whereas the fruit and vegetable aisles of some grocery stores are relatively diverse, the vast majority of the calories in our diets come from the processed foods found in the rest of the store, foods that can stay on the shelf long beyond the seasons of the plants (or animals) from which they are made.

Globally, we favor the crops that best satisfy our ancient needs at the lowest cost, regardless of how far they might have to travel and regardless of the season. The more urban our civilization becomes, the more disconnected it becomes from the life on which we depend and thus the more extreme our demand for simple products regardless of the season. The crops that are expanding—in terms of the area over which we plant them—are not those that are the most flavorful or nutritious but rather those that are used to produce sugar (sugarcane, sugar beets, corn) and oil (oil palms, olives, canola).10

That we have created such a simple world seems dissatisfying, but just because something is dissatisfying doesn't mean it won't suffice. Theoretically, we could live off of a diminishing number of crops. We could even get by on a single crop. Potatoes, for example, provide nearly all the nutrients we need, as do cassava and sweet potatoes. But just as our demand for a few basic foods whenever we want them was predictable, so, too, were the problems these crops are now facing. The more we feed ourselves according to our most primitive desires, the more we create a world dominated by just a few productive crops—crops that are threatened by their very commonness. Even coffee is at risk again. Having learned nothing from Sri Lanka, we have once more planted varieties of coffee that are susceptible to coffee rust in large plantations, and the rust is back. That these crops are nearly all at risk today from pests, pathogens, and climate change is not a fluke. Given our preferences, it was nearly inevitable.

The risk to our crops comes in direct proportion to the ways in which we have simplified agriculture. Nearly every crop in the world has undergone a very similar history—domesticated in one region, then moved to another region, where it could escape its pests and pathogens. But these pests and pathogens, in our global world of airplane flights and boat trips, are catching up. Once they do catch up, there are only very few ways to save our crops, and all of them depend on biodiversity, whether in the wild or among traditional crop varieties. This was true with the banana. Saving banana production around the world depended on finding the Cavendish banana, which relied on the work of the farmers that produced and grew it in the first place. Saving the banana when the Cavendish collapses will depend on our finding yet another variety and having similar luck. Alternatively, someone might be able to breed a new, resistant banana using some mix of new technologies and ancient varieties. But if they are going to do so, it will need to be soon.11

The more we heed our basic instincts for cheap sugar, salt, fat, and protein in whatever form we want it, whatever time of year we want it, the more we create a simple agricultural world and the more we will depend on the diversity of life with which that same agriculture competes on a finite planet. This book is the story of scientists racing to save the diversity of life in order to save our crops and in order to save us. It is the story of a puzzle we must solve. The ancient rules of life leave us relatively few ways to arrange the pieces.


An Island Like Ours

The sauce of the poor man is a little potato with a big one.


Men sprinkled holy water on their potatoes; they buried them with religious medallions and pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mother. Nothing worked. God had turned away.

—John Kelly, The Graves Are Walking

In July of 1846, after a long winter, the fields of Ireland were as green as a golf course and covered with the shoots of potato plants. Then, in forty-eight hours, everything changed. From one end of Ireland to the other, the potatoes died. Near Cork, a traveler found a solitary man in a field, singing. When asked what he was doing, the man said that all his potato plants were dead, blackened and oozing. His livelihood was gone, as were his options. What else could he do? Near him a woman scraped the ground of another field, her body bent, her hands clawing. Beside the woman were a few tiny, oozing potatoes. She planned to cook them for her children. She had nothing else. No wheat. No carrots. The cow had been sold. The same thing was happening across nearly all of Ireland to millions of desperate Irish at the beginning of what was about to become one of the worst tragedies in modern human history.

The scale of the horrors of the Irish potato famine is almost beyond our ability to conceive. The young died first, then the old, then everyone else. People died in the ditches where they slept for the night, en route to what they hoped might be someplace better. They died in their fields. Whole villages disappeared. More than a million people would die before it was all over—a million in Ireland, that is. Others left Ireland on ships, only to face, nearly as often as not, death themselves. The magnitude is numbing. But what is perhaps most astonishing about the famine as it relates to our lives is that more crops are at risk of devastation today because of pathogens and pests than were at risk when the potato famine occurred. The potato famine was not the last ancient plague but rather the first truly modern one. And whereas the threat from the potato famine was regional, the threat we now face, in our far more connected economy, is global.

The potato famine was caused by a disease we now call late blight (and that was then called potato murrain).1 Late blight was first noted in New York in 1843. Where it arrived, potato plants died. It spread to Pennsylvania within the year and left, in its wake, even more dead plants. From the perspective of farmers in Pennsylvania and New York, the late blight fell from the sky. It rained down like a curse. The next spring, potatoes were dying as far north as Vermont. In the spring of 1845, the late blight was in Newfoundland, Canada. Then, later that year, it was in Belgium. Once the blight was in Belgium, its rate of spread increased, its waypoints measured in months rather than years and then weeks rather than months. The late blight was in France by July. By August it had reached England.

In the United States, potatoes were a relatively small portion of the average diet, and so while the losses were great to individual farmers, the collective loss was modest. In Europe, particularly northern Europe, things were different. Between 10 and 20 percent of people in the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, and Prussia ate little solid food other than potatoes. The arrival of the late blight in these regions threatened the sustenance of many families. The death of potatoes in places the late blight had arrived was so extensive that newspapers could discuss little else. Flanders lost 92 percent of its 1845 potato crop, Belgium 87 percent. The Netherlands lost 70 percent. Even in these countries, each of them far less dependent on the potato than was Ireland, the consequences were dire. In the Netherlands the relatively well-to-do were said to "live on the herbs of the field" in the fall of 1845. This was still in the fall, before the long winter. Famine lurked in the small towns and homes across rural northern Europe. The real worry, though, was the small but densely populated island of Ireland.

In 1845 the Irish were more dependent on the potato for sustenance than any other group of people in Europe and, for that matter, any other people on earth, even Andeans.

This dependence of the Irish on potatoes was new and partially the result of chance—i.e., the fact that the potato arrived in Ireland from the Americas (where it was native) in the first place. The dependence on potatoes was also partially attributable to the challenges of farming on a cool, wet island where few crops other than the potato grow well. But perhaps the biggest reason that the potato came to dominate was the system of land ownership. In Ireland in the nineteenth century, Protestant barons of British descent owned enormous estates on which middlemen rented land to the masses. The masses paid rent in part by giving their landlords their agricultural surpluses, though "surpluses" is a misnomer. It would be better to say that the tenants gave their landlords a fixed amount of what they grew, which was then sold to the growing urban population in Dublin, Belk, and Cork as well as to urban populations in England, then the tenants themselves consumed the surplus. Given this land system, success for the average Irish family was measured in terms of producing enough food to survive after the landlord took his share. The crop that produced the most food per acre was the potato.

With each generation, Irish dependence on the potato increased; the Irish were locked in a cycle. The potato and, more specifically, the lumper potato, provided complete nutrition, particularly when combined with milk—complete nutrition that prior to the arrival of the potato in Ireland was lacking. Infant mortality decreased with the farming of the potato. Life expectancies increased. The Irish population boomed, as did populations in other parts of Europe where the potato had become the dominant crop. But as populations boomed, land had to be further subdivided, and as a result families became even more dependent on the potato, the only crop that could sustain them on ever-smaller pieces of land. By the early 1800s, a poor tenant family was likely to have little more than an acre. The only crop that provided for a family on so little space was the potato, and no one would dare plant much else because it would mean having too little to eat. The Irish were trapped eating potatoes, and they ate a lot of them. On that typical acre, by 1845, the average adult in western Ireland may have been consuming as many as fifty to eighty potatoes per day.2 They often did not have clothes or shoes. They lived in houses carved out of sod. They were penniless and yet, thanks to the potato, nourished.3 This was the luck of the Irish in the early 1800s.

In looking back at the Irish in 1845 it is easy to think of them as backward. But they were the opposite: a culture sustained by the newest approach to agriculture, one in which a single variety of a single crop is planted on a large scale, fertilized, and consumed disproportionately. The Irish represented, in their dependence, a potential version of our future. As of early 1845, it was still a hopeful future. The late blight, whatever its cause, had not made it the eighty miles across the Irish Sea from England,4 and so the lumper grew in the dark soils of thousands of fields, as rich and sustaining as it ever had been.


  • Praise for Never Out of Season

    "Once again Rob Dunn shows how relevant knowledge of natural history and ecology is to the environment and to the details of our personal lives."—Edward O. Wilson, University Professor Emeritus, Harvard University
  • "This is a compelling, beautifully written and urgently needed book for everyone interested in the past, present and future of agriculture. By weaving together science, history and biography, Dunn will transform how you think about sustainability in an increasingly complex and precarious world in which we rely on just a few industrial crops to feed more than seven billion people."—Daniel E. Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body
  • "Part cautionary tale and part call to arms, Rob Dunn's new book vividly exposes the vulnerability of our most important crops. An alarming and illuminating read."—Thor Hanson, author of The Triumph of Seeds
  • "Rob Dunn is master story-teller with an insatiable curiosity, an old soul, and an absolute love of science and history. In 'Never out of Season' Rob combines these qualities with his deep knowledge of natural history, evolutionary biology and human behavior. The result is a book that is both of profound importance, and impossible to put down."—Josh Tewksbury, Future Earth Research Professor, University of Colorado
  • "Never Out of Season is an extraordinary achievement. In it, Dunn tells the story of the most important of all human endeavors from the perspective of an ecologist. He celebrates our successes and draws lessons from our follies with equal parts humor and wit."—Colin Khoury, International Center for Tropical Agriculture
  • "Nature is threatened, by our simplification of the Earth. But, as Dunn makes clear in this soon to be classic page turner of a book, this simplification of nature makes us ever more rather than less dependent on nature. This is a lesson we need to heed now at a time in which our bananas, but also our wheat, our cassava and even the rubber in our tires is threatened like never before. Everyone who eats should read Never Out of Season."—Paul R. Ehrlich, author of Human Natures
  • "Forget about cooking books. This is the most important book you will read about food this year. Every single page has surprising facts and insights. The health of the planet depends on us eating more plants. But the monoculture of our foods that dominates global crops could have disastrous effects if we don't begin to think differently. Never Out of Season will change forever the way you look at a potato, a banana, or your chocolate bar."—Peter C. Kjærgaard, Museum Director and Professor of Evolutionary History, Natural History Museum of Denmark
  • "Over the last decade, Rob Dunn has emerged as the most refreshing and exciting interpreter of the natural sciences on the planet, bringing nature writing into fresh territory with wonder, humor and verve. In Never Out of Season, he suggests that whether or not we embrace or disgrace the diversity and seasonality of foods on this planet can ultimately make or break our food system and our life support system as a whole. He does so not with the rhetorical polemics of a strident foodie, but with a storyteller's sense of what can move our minds, hearts and palates to embrace place-based and seasonally-in-step diets that will enrich our senses without depleting the earth's bounty. Rob's capacity to open our minds and senses to other possibilities makes him my favorite literary naturalist; let him become yours, and you will not regret it."—Gary P. Nabhan, agricultural ecologist, author, and recipient of the Vavilov Medal
  • "Engrossing... [Dunn] mediates on the humility with which his colleagues and forebears have preserved the planet's botany... shows how we have been spared catastrophe by legions of unsung heroes and heroines working across a range of crops, from cassava to cocoa to rubber to wheat."—Raj Patel, New York Times
  • "A convincing argument that the agricultural revolution that has made food more readily available around the world contains the seeds of its own destruction.... An alarming account but one suggesting that, armed with knowledge, we can reverse this way of treating the plants that feed us and find a way toward a more sustainable diet."—Kirkus
  • "Dunn... cautions against monoculture in this cogent and optimistic examination of our food system, arguing that having whatever food we want whenever we want isn't necessarily a good thing.... That scientists and researchers continue to play significant roles in the fight for agricultural diversity and sustainability gives Dunn hope."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Thoroughly researched... accessible.... Recommended for anyone interested in agriculture, agricultural history, food science, or general biology."—Library Journal
  • "Thought-provoking.... Well researched historically and scientifically, this admonitory book on the future of our foodways is an interesting read on agricultural sustainability."—Booklist
  • "Dunn weaves together powerful historical and modern examples to show that the safety of our global food supply rests on the edge of a knife."—Andrea Gawrylewski, Scientific American
  • "Fascinating -- if chilling -- look at how monoculture threatens our food supply."—Richard A. Marini, San Antonio Express-News
  • "NEVER OUT OF SEASON outlines how streamlining our crops-breeding the hardiest, best tasting varieties to be seemingly never out of season-has left our food supply without diversity and dangerously susceptible to nature's pathogens."—Food Tank
  • "[Dunn's] message is clear and timely: scientists, governments and consumers must work together to preserve and improve a diverse, resilient food supply in a rapidly changing world."—Shelf Awareness
  • Praise for The Man Who Touched His Own Heart

    "These true stories about the heart pulsate with information and intrigue."—Tony Miksanek, Booklist (starred review)
  • "This delightful book is a page-turner, whose pulse never slows. In Dunn's hands, the evolution and history of the human heart is as engrossing, surprising, and vital as the heart itself."—Dan Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and author of The Story of the Human Body
  • "Dunn's books are always lively, informative, and full of fascinations, but The Man Who Touched His Own Heart is especially so, because he goes straight to the little-known history, medicine, and heart of our most symbolic organ."—Diane Ackerman, author of The Human Age
  • "A perfect mix of science, history and biology, The Man Who Touched His Own Heart is a delightful page-turner that reminds us of all that we have learned by standing on the shoulders of giants. Dunn recognizes the importance of historical and comparative perspectives -- historical in terms of our intellectual ancestors, and more broadly in terms of our evolutionary history."—Charles Nunn, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Global Health at Duke University and author of The Evolution of Sleep
  • "Dunn reminds us that the heart remains a fascinating, far-from-understood organ with an incredible biologic and cultural history.... A clear, engaging account of the heart's long and gruesome history.... Dunn is an impressive storyteller."—Bret Stetka, Slate
  • "In this story of one of the body parts I worry about most, Rob Dunn brings the skills of a great writer and the knowledge of a fine evolutionary biologist together in the form of a gripping drama that gallops across thousands of years and from graveyard to surgical theatre to modern doctor's office. In the process Dunn sheds light not just on our own hearts but also those of all of the other animals with which we share Earth."—Paul R. Ehrlich, co-author of The Population Bomb and Hope on Earth
  • "The writing in this book is clear and understandable.... An extensive collection of medical anecdotes and fascinating history.... I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the heart, in medical history, or in dramatic and improbable stories from the field of medicine."—Yevgeniya Nusinovich, Science
  • A "fascinating book on the mysteries of the human heart.... Rob Dunn's The Man Who Touched His Own Heart shows that the organ's complexities extend beyond the science."—Sam Kean, Wall Street Journal

On Sale
Mar 14, 2017
Page Count
336 pages

Rob Dunn

About the Author

Rob Dunn is Reynolds Professor in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University and in the Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics at the University of Copenhagen. He is also the author of seven books. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Learn more about this author