Dr Vaidehi Nathan
Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Vine, George Gale, University of California Press, Pp 323 (HB), $39.95
A tiny insect ruined the economy of several nations over 150 years ago. It also brought together biologists, farmers, viticulturists, scientists, merchants and of course the government officials. The ‘credit’ for all these goes to an insect phylloxera, a grapevine’s worst enemy.The story of this massive destruction of vineyards stands relevant today, as a case study for human’s fight against the pest. And George Gale, a professor of Philosophy has made this limited-appeal story into a novel-like narration in his Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Vine.
“A century and a half ago the worst of all known invasive species disasters began in France and, in the end, spread to most of the civilised world. This was the grapevine phylloxera catastrophe, the result of an invasion of a species of sucking insect from North America, which, in dreadful progression, wiped out the cultivated grapevine in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia.” Till date this attack by phylloxera remains the worst instance of intercontinental invasive species.
According to George Gale, Big Science, a powerful amalgam of government, industry, and research universities came together and launched a concerted effort to contain the damage. “The methods, structure, and organisation that evolved during France’s national counterattack on the insect find their counterparts in today’s massive efforts.” It was the practical people on ground, the farmers, who took the initiative in resolving the issue.
Insecticide was one of the methods used. But it was a general failure. It was costly, it required skilled labour, and, worst of all, it was no permanent solution, says Gale. The use of sulfur was like “a razor in the hands of an infant.” The American wild vine came as a saviour, however much the French resisted it. “But their wine is undrinkable,” or so said Leo Laliman when he first alerted the wine world to the phylloxera resistance of the American vines. Yet the thirsty French vignerons learned to drink these undrinkable new wines soon enough.”
All the nations affected by phylloxera hesitated in taking vines from outside their country. The American vines grew in the wild and were sturdier. Also, all the countries had varying climate and soil and other factors. And hence each had to work out its own defence.
Mainly four remedies were used – insecticides, flooding, planting in sandy soil, and the use of resistant rootstock. They played a large part in combating the bug. Cooperation between nations, between the cultivators across the continent grew strong. Everyone was willing to share information and expertise. Though phylloxera made appearances, never this disastrous. The book also has annexures that give more information for those who want to go beyond the story.
Gale has built into the story of an insect attack, the story of international cooperation, the emergence of farming and science as closely linked fields and the ‘moral’ that no one is isolated. George Gale is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has written on phylloxera exensively.
(University of California Press, Berkeley, 94704)