Never Out of Season Review

This is an apocalyptic nonfiction set in the present. Robert Dunn plaintively presents the problem of modern agriculture, and tells the story of the few scientists and projects hoping to save the world.
The problem, briefly:
We’re dependent, globally, on a few species of plants.
If any of them develops incurable pests or pathogens, society as we know it will likely die.
Key Takeaways
Dunn’s major point is that biodiversity is of critical importance. Basically, if one key crop species is infected or infested, unless we have already invested in finding alternative varietals of that crop (bananas, potatoes, rubber trees, coffee, cacao), we’ll experience massive global shortages, and the shortages might last indefinitely.
He argues with clear frustration that efforts to preserve and catalog biodiversity are underfunded and receive too little attention overall.
Like many environmental books, it’s written by a scientist who sounds scared and frustrated. Like most environmental authors, Dunn asks the reader to consider the long view. Rapid-producing monocultures mean short-term profit at the cost of global resilience.
Food Security
90% of nutrition globally comes from 15 species of plants.
Any given species of plant can be targeted by a pest, pathogen, fungus, etc. If that crop-killer works on one plant in a monoculture, it can take out the whole crop. The Irish Potato Famine is a prime example.
In order to produce the most product, most farms plant whatever one crop species creates the highest yield. Basically, biodiversity is disincentivized, because planting something other than the highest-yielding species is like throwing away money.
Modern Materials
Rubber comes from rubber trees, primarily in Southeast Asia, usually planted close together.
Brazil has had rubber tree plantations, but there is a pathogen there that attacks rubber trees. If that pathogen reaches Southeast Asia, rubber on Earth will become a scarce resource within a year.
There are a lot of stories like this in the book, making the point again and again that our situation is precarious.
If something starts killing one of our major crop species, pandemic is likely, and we don’t have alternatives at the ready.
Dunn also cites a decline in public funding for the study of crop diversity, insects, and pathogens. We have some seed banks, but not a lot of libraries, databases, or staffed laboratories. The situation is worsening rather than improving.
What can we do?
In Michael Pollan’s New York Times essay “Why Bother?”, he relates his reaction of letdown and disbelief at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth”, when the viewer is asked to contribute by changing lightbulbs:
“The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.”
Dunn’s book has the same disproportionately small ask. Like Pollan, he advises the reader to plant a garden– then participate in adding to our digital databases through citizen science:
Citizen Science Projects
Plant Village is a database and forum for the sharing of crop health information.
Students Discover is a set of lesson plans for kids to track plants, pests, and pollinators in backyards and schoolyards.
Citizen science is cool; cataloguing bugs and plants is a genuine contribution to the field of biodiversity.
Is that all?
The real ask is implicit– here’s what Dunn is not asking:
Create political pressure to increase funding for studies of biodiversity. At a town hall, I asked my representative why climate change was not on her slate of priorities. She told me frankly that she doesn’t hear about it much from constituents. If you want your representative to represent you, tell them what you need!
Make plant genetics or pathogen study into your passion and crusade– become a researcher. Dunn points out that there are fewer than ten specialists globally for each of several major food crop types. So, one more researcher can have a huge impact.
However, assuming you’re not up for a major lifestyle change, an account on iNaturalist is a nice way to turn nature walks into scientific data collection expeditions! There is a shortage of data, so citizen science really is worthwhile for this application.

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