Plants, Humans and War! A triangular affair.

Pichersky, E. (2018). Plants and Human Conflict. CRC Press,206p.

At first glance, ‘Plants and Human Conflicts’ looks like a simple book, with a single banana crop on its cover. This 189-page book is written by Dr Eran Pichersky, a plant scientist very much qualified to write a detailed account on plant products, biochemistry and other molecular concepts. However, does this qualify the author to describe contents like war, conflicts and other historical events? The answer lies in the preface of the book, where the author explains his brief military service and the reason for writing it. The book has eight chapters and a formal introduction chapter, entitled ‘Natural resources as cause of violent conflicts’; more appropriately, it should be titled as ‘Humans’ need (greed) for natural resources as a cause of violent conflicts’.

History is a growing entity and everyday human actions add to it. The author specifically puts emphasis on the scientific understanding of history. He further argues that scientific understanding will not be complete if we exclude plants or other organisms while studying history. Continuing the argument further, the book lists the plants related to human conflicts. A brief explanation of the phenomenon of human conflict or war is also presented in chapter 1. Plants can get entangled in human conflicts in two forms: either they are the cause of war, or they become the tool in the war. In the author’s words, “plants are not only the cause of our violent conflicts or war, but they also provide us with the means to carry out such conflicts” (p.12). The following three chapters describe the list of plants that were the cause for conflicts and the remaining chapters are about the plants that played a vital role in the conflicts. By using the prism of various human conflicts examples, the author effectively makes us realize the significance of plants.

Humans do not only need an appropriate or justifiable reason to start a war but also to find an appropriate time to start the war. It doesn’t mean that soothsayers or black magicians were consulted. So what is the best time to start a war? The author answers this question with another question: “why was military campaign typically conducted during the growing season?” (p.18). He implies that food is more important to wage and win the war. The scorched earth strategy of Russians to defeat Napoleon is quoted here as an example. This does reveal the significance of grains, the major source of calories for us. Hence the chapter is aptly titled ‘Fighting grains’. Have you ever wondered why certain civilizations like Mayans did not expand and capture far off kingdoms and establish an empire like Romans? One of the best reasons may be food logistics. It might sound illogical, but Eran Pichersky provides a logical argument. Having the advantage of easy transport, highly nutritious grains with a long shelf life are a versatile component in war and conflicts. Bigger the empire, the more efficiently it controlled and managed its grain production Without grains a war can be lost, but without grains, war – especially famines and civil wars – can also ruin a nation.

The third chapter begins with a discussion of human taste receptors and elaborates the biochemistry of how sugar and tobacco can influence a normal human’s taste receptors. Peculiarly, cotton is also discussed in this chapter. We are in the habit of eating cotton candy, not the cotton, and clearly, the crop has no influence on the human taste receptors. The author justifies his choice of grouping based on the plantation cum slavery model by which all these crops were cultivated. Still, personally I would have preferred that cotton could have been discussed separately.

Chapter four is all about the spices like pepper, nutmeg, clove etc. and is titled ‘Killer Spices’. Spices are killers, not only for the flavour or taste, but they also cost many lives of the civilian population in the colonization and imperialistic regimes of 18th and 19th century. Many wars were fought not only to control the trade in spices but also to control the very source of production. A little browsing of the history of some of the famous companies like Dutch East India Company or English East India Company can provide voluminous stories. The author’s usage of satirical analogy reveals his understanding of the Spices Age or Imperialistic Age. The chapter has something more important to offer its readers – an explanation why humans have an attraction to the spices. Natural selection seems to have played an important role in this process. The author plays a safe game about this conclusion – “again, still only a hypothesis…” (p.84).

As a writer, it will be difficult to switch from one topic to another. Dr Pichersky does this quite comfortably using a passive and delicate conclusion at the end of each chapter. Caffeine, Opium, Alcohol, Xanthine, Theobromine and Myristicin all come under one group – psychoactive drugs. Except for alcohol, all other compounds are biochemical compounds produced by plants. I am sure the author could have explained more on this context, yet he sticks to the theme of the book. Continuing with the usual pattern of plant biology followed by the examples of human conflicts, chapter 5 proceeds without any strong concluding remarks on drugs. One statement that needs to be pointed out: “Wars on drugs have by themselves often resulted in large number of causalities that include not only many dead plants but also many dead people” (p.108).

Many of us have read about the stone age, bronze age, iron age and even the term plastic age; these terms correspond to the particular period when a particular item was predominately used. Have you ever heard of the ‘wood age’? Though humans have been using wood from time immemorial for various purposes, there is no such term as the wood age. It is mainly because of our dependency on wood. The ways we use wood might have changed, but still, we depend on it. The first part of chapter six begins with a definition of wood. It then explores its usage in warfare, with its role in sea warfare being particularly interesting. The second part of the chapter is about rubber – the polymer of isoprene. Para Rubber tree, Heavea brasiliensis is the most popular plant-based source for rubber, and there are other sources such as Castilla elastica and Landolphia owariensis. All have contributed to human misery in one form or another. The strength and elastic nature of both wood and rubber made them versatile materials, which humans exploited. As the author puts it, “… humans have taken advantage of the bounty that the plant kingdom has to offer, for good and bad” (p.132). This line can be accounted for as the tag line for this book.

The last two chapters outline the more recent developments. Chapter seven is about land, and chapter eight is about coal and oil. Plants like banana, sugarcane, rubber, tobacco, cotton, coffee and tea have been known for their dark impacts by human exploitation. There are many books and sources to acknowledge the above statement. However, the author adds one more crop to the list – oranges. He emphasises that orange cultivation and farms led to the foundation of the Palestine – Israel conflicts. Some of the readers may be aware of the land purchase, the establishment of orange orchards, finally laying the foundation for the country of Israel. The conflicts in Israel are not the core of this chapter. More pertinently, the chapter deal with land grabs. By the end of the1900s, the entire global map was described completely, and there was no newer land to discover and explore. So there was heavy competition for controlling the land, as it became a scarce resource. The author outlines the story of land grabs, which were used for raising plantation crops in Hawaii, Palestine and Latin America.

The author clearly has chosen the incidents in history to highlight the involvement of plants in human conflicts. By selectively choosing historical events, he avoided derailing from the theme of the book, but this means that others had to be left out. For instance, the cotton trade in chapter five is only a brief list of the big events in Indian history. This could make the readers feel that the author has missed out or neglected key details in any of the war or conflicts referred to in this book. Dr Pichersky was cautious enough, as he made this point in the preface and reiterated in the subsequent chapters: “A complete description of shared human-plant history would be an enormous task, one that would be difficult to achieve in a single book” and “for brevity’s sake will not be detailed here” (p.97).

Apart from selected photographs and plant drawings in the book, there are maps that are appropriately inserted in the text; this enables the readers to understand the examples more clearly. It is a history book about war with the focus on plants and their role. To summarize: A blend of chemistry, history, sociology served with plant biology as the main course and seasoned with politics; this book can be devoured by any readers, even teenagers.

About the author

S.Suresh Ramanan is a doctoral student in forestry from India. His research area is silviculture and agroforestry. He is presently working on long-term studies in forestry and agroforestry.