Science

‘Columbus took even viruses, bacteria to U.S.’

Charles C. Mann, journalist, author and scientific writer, with N. Ram, Chairman, Kasturi & Sons Ltd, and Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, Founder, MSSRF, at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai on Friday.   | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

When Columbus first discovered America, he brought to the land not just people, but a host of plants, animals, viruses and bacteria, leading to a collision of ecologies that had been separated for hundreds of years and that, says Charles C. Mann, journalist, author and scientific writer, was when true globalisation began.

Mr. Mann was speaking on Friday at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation on his book, ‘1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created’.

Calling the ecological impacts of the movement of animals and plants, along with people and commodities across continents as important, Mr. Mann traced the history of the potato from the Andes to Europe, the growth in the production of potatoes being instrumental in feeding large segments of the European population and thereby an increase in the population and more stable governments in Europe.

He even quoted a historian as saying the potato was the fuel that led to European colonisation of other parts of the world. Mr. Mann also spoke of the arrival of a pathogen from overseas leading to the devastating potato blight of the 1840s.

In China, Mr. Mann said with practically no flat land and no water and with difficulties in growing rice, when maize and sweet potato were introduced, terrace farming took hold, which then contributed to terrible floods every year for a hundred years due to the erosion of soil which filled up rivers.

Gift to America

Mr. Mann also spoke of diseases and genetic immunity, calling malaria Columbus’ gift to America. He spoke of human beings developing genetic immunity to certain strains of malaria in regions such as Africa, where the disease is endemic and the death of British troops in Africa as they had no immunity against malaria and yellow fever.

He linked the slave trade to the deaths due to these diseases and the lack of sufficient availability of indentured labour, which existed before the slave trade began.

Prof. M.S. Swaminathan spoke of similar impacts in India, such as people in parts of the northeast where malaria is endemic, developing sickle cell traits and of the country’s food crops, most of which are not of Indian origin. He said the globalisation of genetic resources could have beneficial effects if done with care.

N. Ram, chairman, Kasturi and Sons, participated.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 5:15:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/%E2%80%98Columbus-took-even-viruses-bacteria-to-U.S.%E2%80%99/article16786904.ece

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