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

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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 thous 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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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 thous 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.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    This book was OK, but didn't live up to the positivie reviews I had read of it. Definitely not as good as the similar books I've read about potatoes and tobacco. This book was OK, but didn't live up to the positivie reviews I had read of it. Definitely not as good as the similar books I've read about potatoes and tobacco.

  2. 5 out of 5

    R.

    This was a good, quick, informative read. I think the author achieved her objective of providing a "biography" of wheat. But I think there's still a broader, more detailed story to be told. First, a couple of nits - chapters one and two seemed to be a biology/evolution primer. That's not necessarily the way to grab a reader's attention if the reader is interested in wheat. And a couple of anecdotes were a bit overused (e.g., rich nobles using soft white bread to sop up juices from their meat-lade This was a good, quick, informative read. I think the author achieved her objective of providing a "biography" of wheat. But I think there's still a broader, more detailed story to be told. First, a couple of nits - chapters one and two seemed to be a biology/evolution primer. That's not necessarily the way to grab a reader's attention if the reader is interested in wheat. And a couple of anecdotes were a bit overused (e.g., rich nobles using soft white bread to sop up juices from their meat-laden plates). The descriptions of the migration of wheat across the world, the genetic makeup of wheat, Borlaug's work to improve wheat productivity/disease resistance in the 1970s, how gluten intolerance/wheat allergy works and efforts to create a perennial variety of wheat were all very interesting (and understandable). In particular, I think Zabinski did a good job simplifying the descriptions of wheat genetics for the general user. My last biology class was several decades ago, but I was still able to understand the connections between modern wheat, einkorn, emmer and ancient wheatgrass. As much as I liked the book, I think more can be done here. I've read a number of food-related books (Mark Kurlanski's The Big Oyster, Cod, Salt, as well as Steve Ettlinger's Twinkie Deconstructed, and several others). Amber Waves doesn't quite rise to their level (and to be fair, I don't think Zabinski intended it to), but the potential is there if an author were to take on the task. A short list of topics not fully explored in Amber Waves: how wheat has been ground/processed over time (there's a description of stone-based grinding tools in Mesopotamia, but not much after that), equipment & processes used to grow and ship wheat (there was a brief mention of combines and elevators, and a slightly longer description of plow-type tools, but that's it; what about $500k tractors, modern seed-drills, GPS-equipped fertilizer spreaders, etc.?), different cultural traditions regarding wheat-based foods (pasta v. raised bread v. flat bread, etc.), various food trends related to wheat (Graham flour/crackers/bread, wheat-based cold cereal, crackers/hardtack as a staple of military rations, etc.). So - a good book and one I recommend; but I hope Kurlansky (or someone with his talents) grabs the plow handle and finishes the field.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Martin Empson

    I enjoyed this multi-million year history of wheat, from the evolution of the plant to the ways that human society have farmed and changed the crop over time. I did feel that there was a over emphasis on the genetic history of wheat, which reflects the author's belief that it is through historic and future manipulation of wheat genetics that we can deal with environmental challenges and food shortages. So, despite the authors detailed account of the links between human and wheat ecology, I felt I enjoyed this multi-million year history of wheat, from the evolution of the plant to the ways that human society have farmed and changed the crop over time. I did feel that there was a over emphasis on the genetic history of wheat, which reflects the author's belief that it is through historic and future manipulation of wheat genetics that we can deal with environmental challenges and food shortages. So, despite the authors detailed account of the links between human and wheat ecology, I felt the book wasn't quite sharp enough on the way in which questions of (eg) food shortages are also social. Nonetheless it was a riveting read. Full review to come.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Margery Osborne

    I just can't with this book. did the author really have to explain how genes work over and over again? Did she really have to start with the pre-cambrian to describe wheat lineage? did I have to have the nitrogen cycle and photosynthesis explained to me? I'm not in middle school. Who is the audience for this book and (once again) I've got to ask have all the editors died or something? This book did not live up to the reviews I read. I'm very disappointed. I love Mark Kurlansky and other's books I just can't with this book. did the author really have to explain how genes work over and over again? Did she really have to start with the pre-cambrian to describe wheat lineage? did I have to have the nitrogen cycle and photosynthesis explained to me? I'm not in middle school. Who is the audience for this book and (once again) I've got to ask have all the editors died or something? This book did not live up to the reviews I read. I'm very disappointed. I love Mark Kurlansky and other's books on similar topics and I had high hopes for this.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jubilado

    A wonderful account of the background of wheat giving the scientific, ecological and financial sides of the history of wheat. Beautifuly written with vignettes to lighten the mood.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Marlowe

    Informative, if slightly disappointing. Would have preferred more wheat content, yet a good portion of the book is dedicated to describing general horticulture/biology concepts.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Katrina

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mark Vander Ploeg

  9. 5 out of 5

    kevin corban

  10. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

  11. 5 out of 5

    William Reese

  12. 4 out of 5

    MaryJo

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ami

  14. 5 out of 5

    Larry Banks

  15. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bill

  17. 4 out of 5

    NLS

  18. 5 out of 5

    Dеnnis

  19. 4 out of 5

    Terry

  20. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

  21. 5 out of 5

    Nick Fitzhenry

  22. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  23. 4 out of 5

    Marianne

  24. 5 out of 5

    Brent

  25. 5 out of 5

    James Harrison

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jen G

  27. 4 out of 5

    Eren Buğlalılar

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cool_guy

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sean

  30. 4 out of 5

    Teoman TURKOGLU

  31. 5 out of 5

    Ameenah

  32. 4 out of 5

    aneez

  33. 5 out of 5

    Sean

  34. 4 out of 5

    Richard Derus

  35. 4 out of 5

    MR CHRISTOPHER

  36. 4 out of 5

    Bonmcmurray

  37. 5 out of 5

    Dante

  38. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  39. 4 out of 5

    Spencer

  40. 4 out of 5

    Tim

  41. 5 out of 5

    Eileen

  42. 4 out of 5

    Rosemary

  43. 4 out of 5

    Bekir

  44. 5 out of 5

    Reagan

  45. 4 out of 5

    Seva

  46. 4 out of 5

    Kristi Jones

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