Book Review:

The Seed Detective. Uncovering the Secret Histories of Remarkable Vegetables by Adam Alexander

Chelsea Green 2022, GBP 18.99

There are at least two dozen books in a pile next to my bed – waiting to be read ‘soonest’. The fact that I picked ‘The Seed Detective’ ahead of all the others (some of which have been languishing there for far longer) is owed to the fact that I do love a good yarn about seeds and their origins.

But I almost put Adam Alexander’s book straight into the recycling bin after reading the introduction, and here are the reasons why, despite a foreword by Tim Lang, an impressive two page list of  ‘praise for’, a publisher with impeccable ‘green’ credentials. At times I was wondering whether I was reading the same book as those who had recommended it.

Sloppy editing …

From the start, the sloppy editing was really annoying:

On page 8 in the introduction we read of “a world population that has more than doubled from 3.7 billion to 98 billion (as of 2020).” The world’s population – mercifully – stands at ‘only’ 8 billion at present – but that error set me on high alert. As feared, it didn’t remain the only one.

Take a particularly glaring series of factual errors relating to the dates of Columbus’ travels – when the intercontinental exchange of seeds got going:

The year given in Alexander’s book for the return from is first voyage varies from 1492, 1493 (this is correct), to 1494 (for details see footnote [1]).

Of course: What does it matter in the larger scheme of things whether Columbus returned in 1492 or 1493 or 1494? The fact itself does not, but the lack of editing/care in relating ‘detective results’ makes me wonder where else shortcuts with facts might have been taken. Particularly, since this first contact between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ world is pivotal for the global spread of food crops in particular.

Here are a few more of the more obvious mistakes:

–    Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s garden, is in Virginia (p. 173), not New York, although in this instance I’d like to thank the author for being (to my knowledge) the first garden writer to acknowledge that this garden was tended not by the 3rd US president, but by his slaves.[2]

–    Calcutta never was a Portuguese colony (p. 238). While a Portuguese colony existed on the Western bank of the river Hooghly from 1579 to 1632[3], In fact, Calcutta was founded on the opposite river bank 48 years after the end of the Portuguese presence in the region by the British in 1690.[4]

Then there is the style of writing. Surely, it’s a matter of taste,  but referring to the 1st US president’s wife, Martha Washington, as having “…already been pushing up the daisies for over a century” (p 114) to me is crude rather than witty.

Not just bad taste but a lack of proper acknowledgement seems to be evident when Alexander refers to (p. 29) the ‘great Russian seed collector Nikolai Vavilov (1887 – 1943) who had <a type of pea> in his library in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1921.”

Calling Vavilov a ‘great seed collector’ is like calling Columbus an avid sailor. And again those sloppy historic labels: St. Petersburg was called Petrograd only from 1914-1924, after which it became Leningrad. And the ‘collection’ referred to is the “Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry”, which housed samples from 187,000 varieties of plants[5]. It also would not have been amiss to point out that in World War II German troops laid siege to the city, causing thousands to die of hunger – but a number of colleagues at Vavilov’s Institute starved to death rather than (literally) eat into the seed collection.[6].

In other words: Vavilov was not just another ‘fellow seed saver’, and the Institute founded by him is not just another seed library. It remains a unique world repository of seeds: In the 60s Swabian farmers were able to recover a type of lentil they had lost in their region – which today is a highly prized (and priced) speciality.[7] Another similar example refers to the repatriation from the Institute of a Scottish wheat variety.[8]

Missing sources …

Next up: sources. How does Alexander arrive at a sweeping statement such as:

“Ibn al-‘Awwam … was a highly skilled … agriculturalist who wrote Kitab al-fila-hah …, arguably the finest Arabic treatment of the subject as well as one of the most important of all medieval works on it in any language” (page 20) – without consulting the work of others?

The only reference on this section of Alexander’s book refers to a TV-history of Rome.

Similar sweeping statements are made with regards to ancient Sanskrit texts (p. 86), and Chinese sources p. 126 and p. 144f) – again without any references.

The subtitle of the book is ‘Uncovering the secret histories of remarkable vegetables’ – it seems to me that most of these histories remain ‘hidden’ due to a lack of proper referencing, and the lack of a bibliography.

It does not help that at least two of the listed references I tried to follow up on were incomplete and/or not working.

There is an index – but the few times I tried to find something in it the words I searched were not listed.

As a small hobby beekeeper I also have to point out another instance where the author makes assumptions about bees which are plain wrong and should have been caught by an editor:

On page 212 on a section located between Mexico and New Mexico the author muses: “I imagine the earliest native settlers … enjoying a bowl of freshly popped corn drenched in honey harvested from a swarm of wild bees.”

To begin with, the only honey in a swarm of bees are the provisions they carry in their stomachs. Almost ‘by definition’ there is no comb with stores in a swarm. Swarming bees leave their stores behind. Perhaps the author meant a ‘colony’ of bees? However: There were no honey bees in the Americas until they were brought by white colonists. Some 3,000 years after the scene he imagined.[9]


If the above were niggles, Alexander’s comments on F1 hybrids are glaringly annoying in a book about heirloom seeds. On the one hand Alexander often correctly refers to their importance for local populations/cuisines, on the other hand he repeatedly touts F1 hybrids as a good option for vegetable growers. For details see this footnote.[10]

In a book on heirloom seeds, and their (often correctly referred to) importance for local populations/cuisines, F1 hybrids have NO place at all. None. Zero. One cannot have it both ways (even if F1s may have better disease resistance).

Heirloom seeds are a living gene bank. Their yields may not be great or they may not suit our modern taste, but we need to keep growing all these old varieties for their genetic diversity. It’s an insurance policy for growers! The genetic diversity heirloom seeds hold gives breeders the tools to hopefully breed crop varieties that can withstand drought and floods, increasing heat and unexpected frosts.

By contrast F1s are an evolutionary dead end. Ask the breeders at Sativa in Switzerland about their efforts to breed back hybrid corn/maize in an their efforts that lasted for years to ‘recover’ old open pollinated varieties[11].

Missing the point?

Which brings me to my final point of criticism: The last chapter has the title ‘And Finally – Seeds of Hope’. It fails – in my opinion – to point out the absolute need to breed new open pollinated varieties from that pool of traditional ones.

(Why is this important to the extent that I see it as the main reason for all efforts to preserve old varieties? A lot of the old varieties may have personal/regional history attached to them, but if we are honest many do not really rate all that that highly in quality (taste and/or disease resistance and productivity)[12].

But most importantly: Climate change increasingly causes ‘heritage’ varieties to falter, which means that their most important role for the future is to serve as a gene pool for new open pollinated varieties. This is the future of self-sufficiency.)

The author only hints at this in one instance by pointing ‘especially’ to the USA “… where traditional breeding practice is performed by many skilled small-scale operators.” (p. 180).

Again: I beg to differ: Having attended an organic seed conference in the US a few years ago – I remain convinced that while the companies referred to are great in saving traditional varieties (and breeding some new ones), I seriously doubt that they are as productive and strategically organised in breeding new varieties as are Bingenheimer Seeds (Germany), Sativa (Switzerland), and Reinsaat (Austria).

Is this an issue of a language barrier[13]? Or simply one of the grass always being greener on the other side of the pond?

Overall, in my opinion, this is a seriously disappointing book despite. To me, heirloom classics such as ‘100 Vegetables and Where They Came From’ by William Woyce Weaver a true  Sherlock Holmes of seed sleuthing, are a much better choice..

Martin Kunz

Dr Martin Kunz, FRSA, FLS

Former trustee Garden Organic

Pic 1

The devil is in the detail (tomato grown by MK)

Pic 2

Hawai’i – ground zero for Monsanto’s GM corn

Pic 3

Reverse-breeding corn (maize) by Sativa/CH

Pic 4

Organic seed corn  contamination from GM growing neighbour

Pic 5

Seller of seeds in Ladakh – one of the few places apparently not visited by the author

[1] 1493 (correctly mentioned on p. 156 and p. 257), but on p. 191 the year given is 1494, and on page 245 it is 1492.

[2] Which is even more relevant, as the garden is located up on a hillside, i.e. water had to be carried up by the bucket load; Jefferson’s slaves were sold when he died, to pay for his debts.

[3] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9c/Map_of_Portuguese_India.png

[4] Calcutta changed its name in 2001 to Kolkata (I lived there in the 70s).

[5] https://www.opindia.com/2022/01/the-siege-of-leningrad-russian-scientists-starved-themselves-to-death-to-preserve-vavilov-seed-bank/

[6] Vavilov himself died in a Stalinist prison in 1943 https://www.opindia.com/2022/01/the-siege-of-leningrad-russian-scientists-starved-themselves-to-death-to-preserve-vavilov-seed-bank/

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alb-Leisa

[8] Andrew Whitley of ‘Bread Matters’ in a discussion with MK.

[9] Tamm Horn: Bees in America, 2005

[10] Look at this list of quotes:

P. 82 “Today, 99 per cent of all leeks sold are hybrids.”

P. 83 “Embarking on a traditional leek breeding programme for open pollinated varieties, which really was the only way until 1993 when work on creating hybrids began, is a big call.” And: (p. 96): “…F1 hybrids, which promise higher yields uniformity and greater disease resistance”. These quotes seem to me to put F1 hybrids into a positive light.

So I wonder: Are F1s acceptable to the author, at least in Brassicas? It seems so: ‘I do grow the occasional F1 hybrid for an early season crop …” (p. 100). And page 103 ‘improvement … and the creation of F1 hybrids have had a dramatic effect … Modern cultivars have greater disease resistance …”

On page 104 the author’s only reason seemingly left against growing modern hybrids is that they all ‘mature at the same time’.

And finally in this line of argument page 113:  “One of the great successes of modern plant breeding has been to create varieties <of asparagus> that not only outperform traditional open-pollinated ones but are also … less smelly.” This refers to ‘all male hybrids’ (p 118) with the comment: ‘It’s all a matter of taste.’[10]

I beg to differ.

[11] https://www.sativa.bio/en/catalogsearch/result/?q=corn

[12] Hence the (understandable) temptation to grow F1 hybrids.

[13] Although their catalogues are available in English (and on the internet), too. https://www.bingenheimersaatgut.de/en/, https://www.sativa.bio/en/, https://www.reinsaat.at/shop/EN/

Closer to (UK) home: This group has recently been joined by the Organic Seed Cooperative – https://seedcooperative.org.uk/

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