To a tiny but growing minority in urban and suburban areas, the most important part of a home is the edible garden surrounding the living and services.
Consider, for example, Miles Irving, a Briton from Kent who, like any contemporary urbanite inhabiting urban areas in Western societies, bears no ancestral relation to growing his own food (not to talk about knowing about the plants, fungi, animals, or aquatic food he can harvest from his immediate surroundings —one of the usual non-places we wouldn’t relate to the abstract concept of wilderness).
Irving is one of the many cross-references British food journalist Dan Saladino uses to illustrate his book Eating to Extinction, an elementary but fascinating essay on some of the world’s rarest foods and techniques to eat healthy, with little impact (or rather a positive one), and allowing for habitat regeneration.
In Eating to Extinction, Saladino has compiled several stories of the endangered foods disappearing from traditional diets across the planet to warn us about our dependence on food derivatives based on the main varieties of three plant species, providing 50% of the calories consumed by the world’s population: wheat, rice, and corn (each one domesticated on three of the cradles of plant and animal domestication: the Fertile Crescent, East Asia, and Mesoamerica, respectively).
“For Irving, also, eating wild food is a way of life —explains Saladino—. In his early fifties, long-haired and lean, he scours woods, roadsides, and beaches in search of bitch sap, wild garlic, sorrel, seaweeds, and mushrooms. He believes we should all bring ingredients back into our lives and kitchens, even on the smallest scale. ‘Eat dandelion growing on your garden lawn,’ he once told me, ‘it’s a revolutionary act.'”
Monocrops and the loss of local food culture
Contemporary society —we learn in the book— not only confronts the threat of wildlife’s mass extinction due to phenomena like loss of habitat to urbanization, intensive agriculture, and livestock raising but also experiences the vanishing of ancient varieties of crops, livestock, or wild food sources. And, with fewer varieties and limited knowledge to use and preserve traditional food sources, contemporary society is trading off resilience for efficiency —a potentially devastating strategy as supply chain stress, geopolitics, and extreme weather events disrupt commodity markets.
Talk to anybody with substantial experience selling or leasing residential property, and nobody will consider as a selling point that one particular apartment or house includes “areas to grow food and forage edible plants” or has “access to nearby riverbeds and clean beaches where to harvest the best species of edible algae.”
Instead, they will highlight that, no matter a house’s condition, location, or price range, two places must appear in good condition: kitchen and bathroom. Their good—or bad —design and condition may decide a new chapter in people’s lives.
Buying (or renting) a house is socially perceived as the most substantial decision in adulthood and, arguably, along with getting a car, the most self-defining substantial purchasing decision in pop culture. Psychoanalysts may have noticed that such choices are somehow connected to instinctive actions: places associated with the bowel movement (eating, defecating) in homes and the perfect utilitarian alibi to signal who we are (the car). As for their surroundings, urban codes promote and reinforce lawns and ornamental gardens, and few of them allow for the expansion of street and garden plants producing food.
Remote work could be diluting the relative importance of the places we studied and worked, and social media seems to remind us of how self-defining is the way we dress, the entertainment we consume, the books we read, or the way we exercise. Other postmodern institutions define who we are, but none of them have an effect as consequential upon us as the foods and substances we consume: we are also what we eat, and such habits often intermingle with how we want to be socially perceived.
Our dependent on a few varieties of staple foods
As our lives become more technical, we run into the paradox of thinking that we live in a golden era for consumer choice, given the abundance and relative affordability of any possible item. Yet, this abundance in consumer choices is partly an illusion: what we experience is the infinite personalization of a limited number of items, from food to electronics, to cars or furniture. At the supermarket, food choices seem to increase with flavors, mixes, and textures, when in reality, the main staple foods we rely on are fewer and rely on fewer varieties, leaving us prone to pests and diseases.
A few other plant species, each one with a similar radical reduction of varieties to increase outcome: potato, barley, palm oil, soy, and sugar (both from beet and cane). Add these, as Saladino explains in Eating to Extinction, and we have 75% of all the calories the world consumes. Over two million years of human evolution, we have relied on at least 6,000 different species of plants and animals, most of whom aren’t planted, raised, or harvested anymore, with a substantial part of them risking extinction. While our surroundings are paved and ornamented with similar arrays of elements and plants, a minority of enthusiasts promote diversified and productive urban and suburban gardens to boost and restore the ecosystems of homogenized non-places, reducing the risk of pests and benefiting several species.
We keep losing biodiversity in our food: a more and more reduced number of plant varieties rely on intensive agriculture, chemical fertilizers increase, and large amounts of divested water. With it, the risk of catastrophic loss to pests or extreme events amplifies, creating soil erosion and acidification. But a diet based on processed derivatives of just a few varieties of plants and animals also has dramatic consequences on our microbiome and hence our health, as studies begin to unlock the link between diet, beneficial bacteria, and the human immune system.
An ark of taste to save gastronomy’s uncounted vernaculars
Several initiatives worldwide are trying to preserve plant varieties that fed human groups over millennia when it’s not too late, and animal breeds, replaced by more productive or sturdier varieties, as well as by mechanization and the receding of traditional lifestyles. Most of the 8,000 known breeds of livestock are minority and remain localized despite the impact of early trade expansion— from the Silk Roads to the Columbian Exchange—only a few dominate entire food industries.
Some plant archives are especially ambitious in their preservation endeavor: the UK’s National Fruit Collection at Brogdale (Kent) keeps over 2,000 varieties of just apples, the University of California at Riverside has over 1,000 varieties of citrus, and Andine countries hurry to preserve varieties of the staples domestication in the region gave to the world, like the potato and resilient, nutritive grains like quinoa, whereas the Svalvard Vault, just above the Arctic Polar Circle in Norway, keeps the biggest plant archive to preserve variety from catastrophe.
Genetic diversity in plant and livestock domestication can affect the health and culture of any human population, from the most urbanized to the last uncontacted tribes on the planet. Varieties are also an opportunity to find new cures to diseases and imbalances and a way to rediscover phenotypes more resilient to increasing phenomena such as drought or extreme temperature changes.
Keeping a bunch of unused specimens on vaults all over the planet is a desperate solution to a pervasive process, yet some argue that the only way to secure their preservation is by engaging in culture around their cultivation and consumption. Until recently, the concept of species at risk of extinction, explains Dan Saladino, applied only to wild flora and fauna; not anymore, thanks to local initiatives that have inspired food enthusiasts and conservationists over the planet, such as Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food Movement. Promoted by Petrini, a journalist, the organization’s online catalog of endangered foods, Ark of Taste, contains over 5,000 unique traditions coming from rare varieties and several hundred on the waiting list.
The bright future of preserving ancient ways
Rediscovering endangered crops can mean bringing old ways and skills from the brink of extinction, if not augmenting the scope of possibilities to increase the resilience of hyperconnected, monocrop-dependent commodity markets and food systems. This is why Saladino opens the book with a quote attributed to composer Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
When foods and their very particular ingredients —sometimes produced in isolated areas decreasing their surface— become endangered, Saladino explains, the risk is not only the loss of traditional foodways and traditional gastronomies that have often remained unknown but also their particular properties, from easy adaptation to extreme climate to adequate nutritional advantages in favor of uniform, less healthy, commoditized ingredients and diets.
Nutritional properties and more attention to the impact of food have boosted the interest in wild foods and rare, hyper-adapted cereal, vegetables, fruit, meat, and seafood, as well as in traditional fermentations and other types of probiotics (naturally preserved foods with improved nutritional value). Saladino’s food selection is as eclectic as the book’s title suggests: we visit the Hadza people in Lake Eyasi, Tanzania, as they collect Hadza honey. We follow the remnants of a millenarian culture in Australia: the harvest of murnong, a once important and pervasive wild root consciously spread by aboriginal Australians but now rare in its traditional areas.
The Hadza “live fully as hunter-gatherers,” explains Dan Saladino. When in the baobab forest in search of honey, they use a particular, high-pitched whistle that establishes a fascinating communication with a local bird species the size of a starling: sigwazi, accustomed to leading the human harvester “to honey hidden among the branches of the giant baobabs.” Why?
“Somehow, over hundreds of thousands of years, the two species, humans and honeyguides, found a way of sharing their different skills. The bird can find the bees’ nests but can’t get to the wax it wants to eat without being stung to death. Humans, meanwhile, struggle to find the nests, but armed with smoke, can pacify the bees. Theirs is the most complex and productive of any partnership between humans and wild animals.”
If Kavilca wheat could talk
The Hadza have managed to collaborate with a particular bird in exchange for a mutual reward, reminding us of the existence of engagement with other species —and, ultimately, with what we have come to call “natural resources.”
The book also contains echoes of foods already present in and around the Fertile Crescent thousands of years before biblical times, like Anatolia’s Kavilca Wheat. In the remote and desolate Orkney islands North of the Scottish coast, we discover Bere barley’s impressive adaptation and potential. And as we wonder about the fate of such varieties, Dan Saladino makes us travel to other corners of the world to celebrate some of the vanishing types of domesticated crops, whose most popular varieties dominate the current commodity market and influence geopolitics: Sichuan’s Red Mouth glutinous rice is rarely mentioned beyond specialty circles, and Olotón maize, from Oaxaca, traces its roots to Mesoamerica’s own flourishing.
How about vegetables? We learn about the extraordinary story of how Geeche red peas became a seed of resilience and survival in Georgia’s slave plantations: slaves themselves could have concealed some of its tiny seeds when they were forcibly transported into the area. This crop’s origin can be traced to similar varieties off the west coast of the Gulf of Guinea:
“The pea was a food of the savannah, a plant adapted to life in the marginal dry and hot places where most other crops failed.”
“In the parts of the New World where enslaved Africans were sent, you can find cowpeas served with rice: in Brazil, baião de dois; in Puerto Rico, arroz con gandules; in the Caribbean, moro de guandules; and in the American South, Hoppin’ John.”
Toni Morrison and Hoppin’ John
Food sometimes can taste like reading a Toni Morrison book by the fireplace in wintertime. After describing Geeche’s fascinating slave travels into the Americas, Saladino brings us to Germany, where we find out about Alb lentils; then we come back to the Western Hemisphere and learn about Andean ancestral medicine and highly nutritional local tubers, such as oca, a perennial herbaceous plant known as “uqa” in Quechua; this chapter finishes with the story of O-Higu soybeans from Okinawa, in Japan. All these varieties have something in common, explains Saladino:
“What Kavilca wheat had meant to people in Eastern Turkey, or the Alb-linse to the inhabitants of the Swabian Alps, the O-Higu was to people on the island of Okinawa: survival, identity, and self-sufficiency.”
Despite their risk of extinction, such traditions are a potential source of innovation in a moment of necessary reckoning due to the toll of modern agriculture on local ecosystems and the vulnerability of a food system that depends on chemical fertilizers and intensive farms dedicated to automatized monocrops: more varieties and other farming techniques, especially if they require less water and fertilizers and aren’t as vulnerable to pests, could prepare food production for climatic and geopolitical shocks.
Eating to Extinction is also a feast for the senses: rare meats and traditionally harvested seafood, as well as more nutritional and less sugar-engineered varieties of “global” fruits: Sievers apple from Tian Shan, Kazakhstan; Uganda’s Kayinja bananas; and the vanilla orange from Ribera, in Sicily.
One of the (possible) sustainable futures of mass-produced food
The book’s last chapters are dedicated to traditionally fermented foods (one chapter for cheese, another for alcohol), stimulants, and sweets, celebrating ancient products that sometimes predate written culture or even the neolithic revolution.
Saladino’s conclusion leaves room for hope: we can choose to think “more like a Hadza,” engaging in symbiotic collaboration with Nature’s local inhabitants, transitioning from an extractive framework that relies on a short-term strategy (maximizing monocrop outcome despite soil and biodiversity depletion) to one that sustains rich ecosystems:
“Yes, we need to build on the very latest technology but we also need to draw on the methods that have taken our species this far, not only in the last century but also over millennia. Our future food is going to depend on multiple systems of agriculture. Some will be highly industrialised and mechanised, others smaller in scale and richer in their variety of crops and animals.”
Diversity will be fundamental to sustaining ecosystems and the people that inhabit nearby in any case:
“(…) Efforts are already underway to make this happen, from the reappearance of landrace fields of wheat to the work banana breeders are doing, using wild genetics and rethinking the monoculture model. Saving diversity gives us options.”