We all have foods that are important to us, which are as much about our identity as our sustenance. It may be the one we take every day, like a cup of Arabica coffee; it is perhaps the one we wait for all year round, savoring as much as possible in season, like a Sicilian blood orange; or maybe it’s a food like wild salmon that takes center stage in familiar dishes without which no family celebration would be the same. If we were suddenly unable to find them, we would not only lose food, but also a part of ourselves. With over 5,000 foods from 130 countries at risk of extinction, this is a very real possibility.
“Diversity has been so important in our evolution that it’s worrying how uniform and sweet in some cases our foods have become,” said Dan Saladino, veteran food journalist for BBC Radio and author of Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them. Saladino was reporting on the harvest of blood oranges in Sicily more than a decade ago when he was featured in the Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s living catalog of foods at risk of extinction. Saladino began exploring the catalog, spending years traveling and learning about not only foods that are in danger of extinction, but also the people trying to save them. “I fell in love with stories,” Saladino said. “Not only food, but also people who save them. I wanted to tell this story of so many things lost.
Why are so many foods threatened with extinction?
Throughout human history, humans have grown nearly 7,000 species of plants for food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Yet over the past century we have lost thousands of these species, and today almost half of our daily nutritional calories from plants come from just three: rice, wheat and corn.
In Eat to extinction, Saladino takes readers around the world, introducing them to 34 foods, such as Hadza Honey in Tanzania, Geeche Red Pea from Sapelo Island, Georgia, Wild Atlantic Salmon from Ireland and Scotland, and more. . He admittedly struggled to narrow down the list. “I needed to select foods that would take the reader around the world, but I also wanted to avoid repeating how the food came into being and why it disappeared. So, for example, the story of Kavilca wheat evokes the Green Revolution while the story of citrus is about transportation and fruit selection,” Saladino said.
Food is disappearing for all sorts of reasons, most related to human activity, such as overhunting, habitat destruction, and an agricultural production system that often favors a limited range of crops for profitability. And the loss of certain species is not always bad. Transportation and the ability to ship food has made it unnecessary for some species to exist in some areas when they are easier to grow elsewhere, but this reliance on a few crops not only puts our food system at risk of disruption (whether it’s a global pandemic or a pest that could wipe out a banana species or the climate crisis), but it also puts our health at risk.
why it matters
The food system we’ve created over the past half-century is a wonder when you stop and think about it. We have effectively created a system that allows us to have blueberries, lettuce, etc., all year round, no matter where we live. For a price, that is. “There has been a concerted effort to change the global food system to produce more calories,” says Saladino. “After World War II, people worried about starvation, hunger, all those things, but the price paid for that was a world in which more of our food became more uniform.” Today, Saladino says we are learning that food system complexity and diversity are vital and cannot be ignored.
From a health perspective, most dietary guidelines recommend a varied diet. Indeed, eating different types of food helps us consume a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals, promotes good gut bacteria, protects against chronic disease and more.
How can we prevent food from disappearing?
When you consider the numbers, over 5,000 foods are at risk of extinction – yes, that sounds overwhelming, but there are also plenty of reasons for hope. We are starting to bring back some lost varieties. Public institutions and governments carry out some of this work, for example by purchasing school foods that take into account diversity and feeding students with products from local farms. Saladino outlines efforts to save certain foods, but also writes, “You can also help by finding foods that are endangered in your area, whether it’s a variety of apples or a local cheese. By eating them, you can help save them. These foods are more than sustenance. These are history, identity, fun, culture, geography, genetics, science, creativity and craftsmanship. And our future.
When we increase the biodiversity of our diets, we help create demand for other types of food. “We should be exposed to all these different flavors and textures,” says Saladino. “We have the most selfish reason of all to care about diversity because we know it’s important to our well-being.”
This story first appeared on www.marthastewart.com
(Main and feature image credit: Lisovskaya / Getty Images)
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