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Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding Hardcover – October 15, 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (October 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226437043
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226437040
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.7 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #240,707 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"Shoppers who shun genetically modified foods in favor of 'natural' fruits and veggies may be in for a surprise. Horticulturalist Kingsbury's lively history documents the history of human meddling with plant genes since the dawn of agriculture."


"The reason you and billions of other people will eat today is a century-long effort to increase the yield of crop plants. Hybrid tells the story of the quiet heroes behind this triumph. Noel Kingsbury has written a fantastic history of a subject that should become much better known."

(Gregg Easterbrook, author, Sonic Boom)

“I will never look at a slice of bread or grain of rice the same way, having read Hybrid. By recounting the history of plant breeding, the author has revealed the many choices made in creating the crops of today and yesterday, and challenges us to think about our choices for tomorrow.”
(Cathy Maloney, author of Chicago Gardens)

“In plant breeding, just as in evolution, genetic variety is the raw material of success. Hybrid is the story of how the genes that make a fat corn cob, a luscious apple, a brilliantly orange carrot or a high yielding strain of rice have traveled by serpentine paths to reach the genomes of the crops that we so depend on and yet so take for granted. In Hybrid we learn that there was a green revolution in eleventh-century China when a visionary emperor imported new strains of rice from Indochina; how working men in nineteenth-century Britain made a sport of competitive gooseberry breeding, and how a German doctor discovered hybrid vigor in plants. Hybrid the book displays, like hybrids themselves, all the marvelous fruit of miscellany.”

(Jonathan Silvertown, author of An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds)

“A magnificent achievement—Kingsbury tells this gripping story, with a large cast of characters across the entire span of human civilization, with wit, passion, and erudition.”

(Tim Richardson, author of The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape)

“Thoughtful, well researched and refreshingly broad in scope, Noel Kingsbury’s Hybrid took me out of my immediate area of expertise (plants and garden history) and opened my eyes to the way previously unsung plant breeders have transformed societies. Accessible to specialists and non-specialists, it should be essential reading for anyone wishing to take an informed view on the future direction of biotechnology.”

(Jennifer Potter, author of Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of t)

"Artfully linking human cultural evolution and the 10,000-year history of plant breeding, Kingsbury moves fluidly between the art and science of plant breeding and the growth of increasingly complex human society and politics. He convinced me, at least temporarily, that plant technologies have been a major contributor to many important developments in human history. . . . Hybrid provides an informative tour of plant breeding through time, its interface with society and cultural evolution, and the people who contributed to this history. Kingsbury’s account should be required reading for students preparing for a future as a plant breeder, geneticist, or molecular biologist. Fortunately, that requirement should prove unnecessary—the book is engaging at many levels, and I expect many scientists and lay readers to pick it up on their own accord.”—Science


"A novel might be hard pressed to imagine some of the incredible stories covered in this book."
(Neil Lucas The English Gardener)

About the Author

Noel Kingsbury is a horticulturalist and writer, and the author of many books, including Designing with Plants and Natural Gardening in Small Spaces, and coeditor of Vista: The Culture and Politics of Gardens.

More About the Author

Dr. Noel Kingsbury is internationally known as an innovator and writer in the garden world. He has worked on both private gardens and public spaces developing nature-inspired planting, and has written about garden design, green roofs and the politics of gardening. A great believer in using science to inform our gardening, Noel completed a PhD with the University of Sheffield in 2008. His latest book is 'Garden Designers at Home'. He lives and gardens in the Welsh Borders near Hay-on-Wye.

Noel writes for the UK and US garden press and has written some 20 books, as well as taking on design projects himself. He gardens in the Welsh borders, where he looks after a four acre plot, mostly a semi-natural meadow but with lush borders of perennials and a productive vegetable area. Like many leading European gardeners he's very much in love with American prairie plants.

With Tim Richardson he co-hosts 'The Vista Debates', a monthly forum for the discussion of garden and landscape issues, at London's Garden Museum.

His most recent book is a bit of a departure, a popular science history title - the story of plant breeding, in agriculture as well as gardening.


Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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See all 14 customer reviews
This is a very interesting and sharp book.
Herlânder Ferreira
While these can of course be caused by many things, it seems shortsighted to state that we know for an absolute fact that there is no relationship.
B. John
To be clear, organic farming couldn't be successful today without the progress made by conventional breeding and science.
Jeff Schulte

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By J. Canestrino on January 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Noel Kingsbury's Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding delivers just that, though much more of the history than the science. In all fairness, I think it strikes just the right balance for the intended audience which is the general science reader or horticultural hobbyist and not professional plant breeders. The thirty-five Technical Notes included at the end of the book provide additional information for those who are not already familiar with some of the terms used in the text. To be certain, the scope of this book would be an ambitious undertaking for any author, Kingsbury has put forth an admirable effort. By necessity the story must begin 10,000-12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent where pastoralists became the first agriculturalists and continue all the way through to the modern age of molecular genetics. Along the way it must encompass many crop plants and ornamental species, numerous contributors and critics and try to accurately, but without bias, reflect the social, political and religious influences on plant breeding efforts in each era.
As would be expected, the major crop plants, wheat, corn, potatoes and rice, get their fair share of coverage, but the author also manages to include short asides or honorable mentions for many other fruit and vegetable crops. He also makes a point of including a whole chapter on the history of plant breeding for ornamentals where roses and tulips get center stage. The same is true of the people who have been involved in improving plants for human use and consumption. The histories of well known figures and some of the lesser known but very influential, are thoroughly covered in the text. Men such as: Gregor Mendel, Norman Borlaug, Luther Burbank, Nikolai Vavilov, Henry A. Wallace, Henri and Philippe de Vilmorin and W.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By J. Harshman on April 25, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is well-written, amazingly thorough and addresses the overarching progression of plant breeding to get where we are now from the first hunter-gatherers picking fruit off last year's trash pile. Plant breeding as an industry that shares the same tools, goals and methods but is segregated by crop. This book does an excellent job of including everyone from strawberries to grains to azaleas. He also does a good job of including ALL of the major centers of plant breeding, including newer additions to the modern field like India and the Philipines.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I originally bought it as a Christmas gift for my advisor and ended up buying a copy for myself. As I am a fledgling plant breeder, this book has been invaluable in getting me up to speed on such an expansive and historical profession. Thanks Dr. Kingsbury!
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful By DvddSky on June 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover
If I had a dollar for every grammatical error in Noel Kingsbury's book, Hybrid, I would buy another copy and hit the publishers in the head with it. Every ten pages there was a missing quotation mark, extra conjunction, or in one case a set of dates written as 1967-1958. REALLY? The harvest of 1967-1958 was bad? That makes no sense. Obviously someone needed to make the 5 a 6 and did not do their job. The editor clearly used all his sick days editing this book, or at least SHOULD have done so in order to leave the task to someone more able.

With about 100 pages left I lost complete interest in reading Hybrid, decided to write this review to express my discontent (my first review on amazon.com), and half-heartedly got through the rest. This was an otherwise enjoyable summer read for me (I make my living as a horticulturist), but my enjoyment was overshadowed because it felt like I was reading someone's rough draft. I hope they fix the many mistakes when this book goes to paperback - this is the worst editing I have ever seen.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Douglas on February 6, 2012
Format: Paperback
Very much enjoyed this book, lovely intersection of history/economics/plant science/biography. The rough outlines of the Darwinian/Medellian divide in plant breeding was particularly interesting and left me wanting to dig more into the subject.

I would definitely echo another reviewer's comment that the editing on the US version of the book is horrendous. It must have been shopped out to a third party or something, because there is no excuse. It mars an otherwise enjoyable read. One particularly egregious example was where a scientist was described as working for the FAO. In a footnote at the bottom of the page, FAO is defined as "FAO Schwartz" which is a famous US toy store!! Not the Food and Agriculture Organization as it should have been. The publisher should be ashamed.

That said, I loved the book for the content. Very accessible. Ripping yarns of plant breeding!
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15 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Jeff Schulte on March 16, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Don't be fooled by the title, there isn't more than a scape of science in the entire book, and certainly nothing beyond 7th grade biology.

Kingsbury does a decent job of relaying the pre-scientific history behind plant breeding, and does a good job of story telling, particularly about how individiual personalities and politics influenced early efforts. However, occassionally the style and flow breaks down to almost encyclopedic snips about others involved. Luther Burbank (think Russet potato) gets an entire chapter, but other characters pop in and out of the story line without much cohesion. I did learn a lot in about the history of breeding, in particular how recent the advances really were. Its hard to fathom a great discovery like Mendel's genetics getting lost for 40 years before taking off.

Most damaging, however, is Kingsbury's treatment of the Organic movement and GM breeding. This area is filled with misdirection, gross inaccuracies, and other rhetorical tricks.

Kingsbury characterizes the supporters of the organic movement as technophobic Luddites. This couldn't be further from the truth. The strongest organic voices, are hardcore scientists, in particular the Rodale institute. Of course I shouldn't be surprised, Joel Salatin of Polyface farms says he constantly gets this same criticism. To be clear, organic farming couldn't be successful today without the progress made by conventional breeding and science. However, that doesn't mean organic methods haven't progress as well.

Likewise the GM breeding techniques are characterized as 'not qualitatively different' than previous plant breeding efforts. While he might have a case for mutagenetic plant breeding, all other efforts are not even comparable. But forunately, Kingsbury actually says very little about the subject so I'll end my criticism there.
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