Cue up the marching band, majorettes, flag-waving veterans, and cheering crowds. The Food Explorer by Daniel Stone is a proud celebration of American greatness. The hero of the story is David Fairchild (1869–1954), a botanist and agricultural explorer. Working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his group was responsible for sending home seeds and cuttings of thousands of plants from nations around the world. The goal was to expand the variety of crops grown in America, and build the biggest, most profitable, industrial agriculture system in human history.
The devious villain in the story is Charles Marlatt, a childhood acquaintance of Fairchild who had grown up to be an entomologist. He detested what Fairchild was doing, because the tons of samples sent home to Washington were not quarantined and thoroughly inspected. So, plant diseases and pests were free to flee and discover America. Imported insects included the codling moth, Hessian fly, asparagus beetle, hop-plant louse, cabbage worm, wheat-plant louse, pea weevil, Croton bug, boll weevil, San Jose scale, gypsy moth, brown-tail moth, Argentinian ant, alfalfa-leaf weevil, and so on.
Marlatt understood that plant pests and pathogens were potentially as dangerous to society as a cholera epidemic. They could spread rapidly and cause enormous damage. Farms were getting thrashed, and Marlatt had stunning photos. It was nearly impossible to control problems once they were released into the ecosystem. It would have been far more intelligent to zap them before they left the starting gate. Fairchild scoffed at Marlatt’s hysterical paranoia. Economic benefits exceeded economic costs, he believed. America could solve any problem. Full speed ahead!
The spooky fanatical weirdo in this story is Fairchild’s all-star food explorer, Frank Meyer. In deepest, darkest Asia, he often walked 20 miles (32 km) per day, through regions where locals intensely hated white folks. He had frequent confrontations, beatings, and near death experiences. He obsessively gathered and shipped thousands of plant seeds and cuttings. Folks who comprehended the botanical risks of importing exotics gave him a nickname, Typhoid Mary (Google her).
In his book Grassland, Richard Manning talked about the unintended consequences of introducing European cattle to the western plains, where the climate and natural forage were not ideal for them. Efforts to introduce traditional European plants failed, so Meyer was assigned to send back plants from arid regions of Asia. Crested wheatgrass was one of his discoveries.
Following the Dust Bowl, and other agricultural wipeouts, the government aggressively planted crested wheatgrass for erosion control. It thrived on the plains, aggressively replacing native vegetation with colonies that were nearly monocultures. Unfortunately, in the winter months, this wonder grass retained little nutritional value, and the mule deer, elk, and antelope starved in endless fields of grass. Manning lamented that “Meyer brought with him botanical bombs that explode even today.”
The plant importation fad introduced a number of bummers. Spotted knapweed suppresses native grasses, and has now spread to 7 million acres (2.8 million ha). Grazing animals avoid it. Leafy spurge now inhabits 2.5 million acres, only some types of goats can eat it. The result is biological deserts that are expanding, and extremely expensive to eliminate — essentially impossible, according to Manning.
Anyway, my curiosity about Meyer led me to discover Stone’s book. It’s easy to read, and portrays the food explorers as heroes who devoted their lives to making America great. If, like most Americans, school taught you little about environmental history, Stone’s story is warm and fuzzy, a pleasant tale of courage, progress, and wealth creation. Fairchild became a celebrity, and hung out with the rich and famous.
One of the biggest eco-catastrophes caused by imported plants was the chestnut blight. Fairchild, Marlatt, and Meyer were fully aware of it. It was first noticed on American chestnut trees at the Bronx Zoo in 1904. At that time, chestnuts were a canopy species in 8.8 million acres (3.5 million ha) of eastern forest. The trees were called “the redwoods of the east.” Some grew to 150 feet (46 m) high, having trunks up to 17 feet (5 m) in diameter, and a canopy 100 feet wide.
Every year, mature trees dropped an abundance of nuts, food for squirrels, wild turkeys, deer, bears, raccoons, and grouse. The wood was rot resistant, easily split, did not warp or shrink, and was useful in many ways. Both the Indians, and the hill people who followed them depended on these trees. Hillbillies could raise free-range hogs in the forest commons at no cost, and fill their smokehouses with chestnut flavored pork. Cartloads of nuts were hauled to town and sold for cash, “shoe money."
Spores of the blight fungus were transported by birds, mammals, insects, and breezes. As the contagion got rolling, it could spread as far as 50 miles (80 km) per year. The blight damaged the inner bark, blocking the flow of water and nutrients to the tree above ground. Within 40 years, the American chestnut was a threatened species. Four billion trees died. The wildlife disappeared, and many hill people had to abandon their subsistence way of life.* One reported, “Man, I had the awfulest feeling about that as a child, to look back yonder and see those trees dying; I thought the whole world was going to die.”
In 1904, nobody knew if the fungus was native or imported. Meyer identified the source of the fungus when he found infected chestnut trees in China in 1913, and Japan in 1915. He noted that these trees rarely died from the blight, and some were very resistant. The food explorer lads did send back some chestnut seeds and cuttings over the years, but they weren’t the first. In her essay on the introduction of the blight, Sandra L. Anagnostakis** noted that nurseries were importing Japanese chestnuts as early as 1876. Many seedlings were sold by mail order long before 1904.
Marlatt argued that the blight could have been prevented if the federal government had wisely quarantined and inspected all imported plants. Fairchild though this was a ridiculous idea, impeding the speed of progress for no good reason. Marlatt eventually won. Congress passed the Plant Quarantine Act in 1912, and inspections were the domain of the Federal Agricultural Board, which Marlatt controlled.
Stone devoted about four sentences to the chestnut blight catastrophe. In Stone’s account, Fairchild dismissed the blight as a triumph of progress — an existing vulnerability had been eliminated by importing the superior blight resistant chestnuts from Asia. Hooray! Fairchild wrote a different version of this story in his 1938 book, The World Was My Garden. When he eventually comprehended the incredible devastation, he was stunned. He wrote, “I regretted any feelings of impatience I may have had towards their quarantines and inspections.”
As we chaotically plunge into the twenty-first century, with seven-point-something billion humans furiously beating the stuffing out of the planet’s ecosystems, all the red idiot lights on the dashboard are flashing. At the same time, the vast majority of consumers seem to believe that perpetual growth is both possible and desirable, life as we know it won’t get blindsided by the end of the fossil fuel era, and wizards will find a way to feed eleven billion. I’m beginning to wonder if it might be wise to devote a little time to sniffing reality’s butt.
It took thousands of years for Old World cultures to develop the skills and technology needed to obliterate their wild ecosystems. By the time these folks washed up on the shores of America, they were fire-breathing masters of the art of destruction. Uninvited immigrants colonized a vast continent and threw open the floodgates to legions of biological nightmares. Environmental history is loaded with horror stories caused by primate travelers — potato blight, anthrax, Dutch elm disease, white-nose fungus, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, influenza, HIV, and countless others.
The tallgrass prairie and much forest land has now been stripped of indigenous life, plowed, and planted with sprawling monocultures of genetic clones — absolutely perfect paradises for pests and pathogens. Here comes the sprayers. Here comes the tumors. There goes the topsoil. The parade marches on. Hooray!
Stone, Daniel, The Food Explorer, Dutton, New York, 2018.
* Historical Significance of American Chestnut by Donald E. Davis.
** Chestnuts and the Introduction of Chestnut Blight by Sandra L. Anagnostakis.