It’s not hyperbole to say that there are a few crops that have altered the course of human history. The Cavendish banana. The navel orange. Genetically modified soybeans. They’ve all helped humanity solve the huge problem of feeding our ever-growing population. These crops, and others like them, were a massive benefit to us when we needed them.
But now, these same crops could be our downfall.
As British food journalist Dan Saladino writes in his new book, Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, there are thousands of crop species that either have died out or are at risk of going extinct. This is mostly because of choices people have made in the name of globalization and colonization. Along with creating plants that were more transportable, more hardy for harsh weather conditions or more resistant to pests, we’ve also ended up with just a handful of corporations in control of many of these plants. Saladino lays out a few of these dire statistics, noting that roughly 50 percent of the world’s cheese is dependent on starter cultures from one company. One quarter of the beers drunk in the world are produced by one company. Global pork production is based primarily on the genes of one breed of pigs. Just a handful of companies are in control of the majority of the world’s seeds.
As Saladino argues, those efforts have been helped along by legislation and government subsidies. “This is a political decision,” he says. “Governments are often worried and scared, rightly so, of food shortages and lack of food. But that’s a very short-term way of thinking.”
Thanks, in part, to decisions made with globalization in mind, the average diet is more homogenous than ever. It may not seem like it, because we’re surrounded by a false diversity every time we go to the grocery store. From tomatoes in January to 50 different boxes of cereal on the shelf, we’re surrounded by an abundance of food options. Your diet is likely ten times more varied than what your grandparents ate. And yet, those out-of-season January tomatoes are often just one or two strains available across the country. Those multiple boxes of cereal are all made with the same base of wheat or corn species.
“Of the 6,000 plant species humans have eaten over time, the world now mostly eats just nine,” Saladino writes. Of those nine, rice, wheat and maize make up 50 percent of all calories eaten in the world. “Add potato, barley, palm oil, soy and sugar, and you have 75 percent of all the calories that fuel our species.”
It was this revelation that prompted Saladino to write the book. He spent decades as a reporter for the BBC, and in that time, he traveled the world telling stories about food. During his travels, Saladino witnessed an increasing number of people talk about the crops they could no longer afford to grow or the species that were at risk of dying out. It came to a head during one trip to Sicily during the annual blood orange harvest. “I was being told by farmers that it was their last harvest,” he says, “that it was no longer financially viable for them to be growing this fruit that had been growing on the island for 1,000 years.” That led Saladino to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a foundation committed to promoting and saving local foods at the risk of extinction, through which he made further discoveries about our global food system.
In Eating to Extinction, Saladino invites the reader along on his trips across the globe, writing small vignettes from dozens of places, each focused on a different food. He examines multiple examples of grains, cheeses and vegetables that are at a tipping point on the world’s stage. At the same time, Saladino gives the reader a short history lesson, so we know how we ended up here. “After the Second World War, there were parts of Europe at risk of starvation, and there were concerns over famine in Asia,” Saladino explains. “Who can blame the crop scientists for trying to come up with solutions or quick fixes to produce more and more calories for a fragile population?”
The development of crops that were more transportable or more resistant to disease was inevitable in that situation, and it was arguably a good thing. The problem, Saladino says, is that momentum took over, and now, we’re hard-pressed to stop it. “It catches up with us, and we become locked into this system and the promise of abundance and cheap food. But as we now know, in terms of the environment and climate change, water loss, problems with soil, problems of nutrition…We know it was a success story at the time, and for many decades,” he says. “Now we are seeing the consequences of that success.”
Saladino argues that a lack of diversity in global crops is not only unhealthy for us but risky for the future of the plants themselves. “Monocultures don’t exist in nature. There’s a reason diversity exists,” he says. A mono-cropped acreage is less resilient and more prone to disease. Take the history-changing Cavendish banana. The variety is far and away the most popular worldwide, because it has a thick skin that protects the bananas in transport, and they can ripen while they’re being shipped. That means they can be picked early and arrive at their destination ready to be peeled and eaten. But the variety is also incredibly susceptible to a fungus, which could wipe out the Cavendish banana and tank a global industry.
So, where do we go from here? In order to save our food species, and help our overall health and resiliency, Saladino says we need to look at legislation that cares more about the long-term impacts of our food system and focuses on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. We can do that by eating locally and discovering which plants have adapted to different parts of the world. “It took thousands of years for this interaction between humans, environment and animals to produce foods that flourished in a particular part of the world,” says Saladino. “Science and technology allowed us to, in a reductionist way, override that.”
Despite all of this, Saladino is eternally optimistic. He sees individual efforts and commercial changes as moves in the right direction. In his view, it’s both possible and plausible that we can become experts in our own local biodiversity and have that knowledge impact our decisions when it comes to what we eat. As Saladino writes: “We get the food system we pay for.”
The question now is, how much is our food system worth?