Stemming the Extinction of Foods We Love

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Humanity’s interwoven history and connection with traditional foods—including bread—is explored in this fascinating book by environmental journalist Simran Sethi.
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Simran Sethi tells the story of the loss of biodiversity from soil to plate and explores how to better save the foods we love in "Bread, Wine, Chocolate" (HarperOne, 2015).

Our fixation with food is at an all-time high. Yet, what is unknown to many is that the most delicious, diverse varieties of food and drink are being slowly and irrevocably lost. Simran Sethi reveals what we’re losing, how we’re losing it, and the inspiring individuals and organizations working to rescue the foods we revere and crave in BREAD, WINE, CHOCOLATE: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love(HarperOne, 2015). The following excerpt takes a look at how food traditions and culture is lost, and offers ways we can start taking it back for ourselves.

I grew up in a household where my mom cooked dinner almost every night. I am of Indian origin; most of our home-cooked meals consisted of rice with peas (I hate peas) plus some curry or dal (lentils), with salad and fruit for dessert. The food I ate outside of those confines was completely different. I’m from the South, where sweet tea is the beverage of choice and grits and barbecue are dietary staples. From an early age, my tongue knew the sting of chilies and the bite of masala alongside the saltiness of a perfectly baked biscuit and the cloying, but heavenly, sweetness of pecan pie. Even today, my comfort foods are bhartha (roasted eggplant) and rice (sans peas), and macaroni and cheese and collard greens.

Every person who has immigrated to the United States has a similar mash-up and story about how food was a source of solace—but also one of shame. There were many days when I didn’t want to come home to a kitchen reeking of fried onions, ginger and garlic; I wanted TV dinners, meatloaf, whatever would allow me to fit in rather than stand out. But I now realize these tastes are not only the essence of who I am but what America is: a melting pot of cultures and flavors ranging from soul food to sushi.

Yet, for many cultures, the stigma of difference has magnified and deepened. It’s what Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, head of the Convention on Biological Diversity, explains is another contributing factor to the loss of agrobiodiversity: the replacement of traditional foods deemed to have “low status” with processed foods that seem more modern. If my mother had stopped cooking Indian food, it would have become an exotic novelty, not a mainstay. I wouldn’t have a deep appreciation of those foods—my foods. I wouldn’t miss them if they were gone.

When I was 26, I moved to India. My first year there, I feasted on all the Indian foods I had missed while growing up in the United States: dhansak, bhel puri, pav bhaji. During my second and final year, the trend reversed itself, and I started to miss another set of tastes. I stockpiled arugula for salads (on the rare occasion my vegetable seller had it) and made lasagna with noodles that perpetually went limp. The meals were close-not-quite approximations to what I knew and loved. When McDonald’s opened up in my neighborhood of Bandra, I was secretly thrilled. I’d finally get decent fries and a chocolate shake. McDonald’s was also a taste of home.

Nearly 20 years later, those fries and shakes are no longer a novelty, found in 300 outlets in India, part of over 34,000 McDonald’s in 116 countries around the world. They are so ubiquitous that Big Macs are used by economists as an informal way to determine if currencies are over- or undervalued. Cheap, processed food has changed the world.

Fast food doesn’t just provide momentary gustatory relief for someone longing for a taste of the familiar; it has now reshaped what taste means for everyone. Chain restaurants go to great lengths to make a burger in Poughkeepsie taste the same as one in Paris, with a few concessions for what the company calls “locally relevant ingredients.” From Armenia to Vietnam, the Golden Arches and countless other fast food outlets have changed the shape, size, taste and speed of food.

This is because many countries are eager to emulate what America stands for and to avail of freedoms that appear to make life more convenient. They want the right to enjoy what the rest of the world eats—or at least what the world says they should eat. The loss of agricultural biodiversity and our narrowing global diet are, in part, a reflection of hamburger culture. Fast, processed food is considered modern, easy and cool—sentiments that wind all the way back to the crops that are grown.

Phrang Roy, coordinator of the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, saw this surface in the 1960s during the rise of industrialized agriculture, which started with the Green Revolution, a period of intensive planting of high-yielding cereal crops that transformed agriculture. “If a farmer grew a multitude of crops, he was not modern, he was backward,” Phrang says. “If his field was a bit messy, not manicured or monoculture, he was backward. This is the psychological impact of accepting someone else’s standard. He feels shame for not using chemicals or high technology.”

This standard has continued and extends from the field to the plate. The idea of “good” food has been reduced to foods that grow abundantly and stand strong in the field—and can sustain long journeys and continue to stand strong on supermarket shelves. And while these qualities are important, they give short shrift to the many reasons we choose one food over another, regardless of our budgets.

They also inform the steady refrain from various players in the food industry that the reason we should settle for inexpensive, marginally nutritious food is because we can’t afford anything better. Some of the nonprofits, government officials and businesses who maintain these views mean well: Hunger is real and people need to eat. But others, especially those profiting from cheap food, use poverty as an excuse to keep feeding us food of lower quality, sowing fields full of nutrient-poor monocultures and glutting shelves with processed foods chock-full of an addictive combination of salt, sweeteners and fats that keep us coming back for more.

We all know this craving. The kind of yearning that has some of us driving to the grocery store at odd hours of the night—or lining up for fries at a McDonald’s in India. Processed foods are engineered for hyperpalatability, a kind of uber-deliciousness that comes from a combination of fat, sugar, salt and flavorings that can only be cooked up in a laboratory. They ignite the same brain circuitry that fires when we’re addicted to a drug and want another hit. A medium serving of McDonald’s fries contains 19 grams of fat, 270 milligrams of salt and 19 ingredients. Contrast that with a potato: less than one gram of fat, 13 milligrams of salt and one ingredient. Hyperpalatable foods are like crack cocaine for our taste buds.

This addiction can be easily confused with love. But eating what our body truly loves requires us to pay attention to how our system responds to what our head says it wants. The synthetic trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners, colors and preservatives in cheap food make us feel good in the moment but are the reason that, for the first time in over two centuries, the current generation of children is predicted to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

The refrain of affordability also obscures deeper challenges around why people aren’t paid enough to spend more money on food. Why is this all we can afford? And why isn’t food a bigger priority? We Americans spend less of our income on food—6.7 percent, with an increasing percentage spent on snacks—than almost any other country on the planet. Less than what we spent on food during the Great Depression.

No one should be underfed. Those who are should have greater support in not only being fed but being fed well. And those of us who can afford more might do well to reconsider why we pride ourselves on cheap food. That bargain means that someone (a farmer or factory worker, not the CEO) or something (such as safety or environmental standards) was likely compromised. “The best price isn’t necessarily the cheapest one,” Dr. Dias says. “Because what is cheapest is usually the lowest quality.”

I was sitting at my kitchen table in my tiny apartment in Rome when Dr. Dias said these words to me during our short phone interview. As I held my mobile to my ear, I picked at the remnants of lunch I had pushed to the side to make room for my interview notebook. My meal consisted of fresh figs, a few thin slices of prosciutto and pizza bianca (thin, salty pizza dough absent of any toppings that’s easily found in most Italian pizzerias). The lunch had cost a few euros, roughly the equivalent of a Happy Meal. But the figs were in season and the ham came from a butcher I had befriended. The humble meal was delicious and represented the best that the season and region had to offer. Cheapest is usually the lowest quality—but it doesn’t have to be. We still have a choice.

“What is often the case,” Colin Khoury told me, “is that the bigger the system that grows or manufactures the food, the less of a tendency there is toward diversity. The scale of production favors sameness.” Our industrialized food system was designed for efficiency and yield—not nutrition, taste or diversity.

“Diversity isn’t a finite thing,” anthropologist Pablo Eyzaguirre clarified during our interview in his plant-filled office at Bioversity International. “It’s a dynamic construct that people create all the time.” And it’s not the same in every place. As we migrate from place to place, our foods travel with us. “They create new diversity as people look at them in different ways. Take the cowpea, what’s known in the United States as the black-eyed pea. In most parts of Africa, the leaves are the primary food. When you’re selecting the crop for leaves rather than beans, you’re envisioning a different kind of plant. Cultures see plants in different ways. That’s why it’s so important to maintain diversity in what we grow and in who grows it. Agrobiodiversity gives us options.” He added, “When you take the culture out of it, its use becomes very limited, with implications for both the gene pool and the potential of the species.” There are also implications for taste, which is where my appreciation had taken hold.

Soon after I started researching this book, I saw a bumper sticker that read “Extinct is Forever.” It’s true. It’s what we face every time we shrink agrobiodiversity from thousands of varieties down to a handful. We stop growing it, we stop eating it and, slowly, it disappears. The loss of genetics is accompanied by the loss of knowledge on how to grow foods and how to prepare and eat them. It’s the cultural erosion that accompanies the genetic one: Our culinary traditions are going extinct, too.

No matter where you live, you have the memory of something you used to eat that is no longer a part of your diet—something your grandmother used to make, something a small shop used to carry. Something you have lost. This extinction is a process; it happens one meal at a time.

Fortunately, a lot of these changes have occurred in the last few decades, which means they can change again. That is, of course, as long as we sustain the diversity found in the wild, on farms and in stored collections that contain the traits we might need now or in the future: immunity to a disease, greater adaptation to a changing climate, the possibility of higher yields or greater nutritional value—and delicious taste.

But in order to support this diversity and facilitate this change, we have to start thinking differently about the food in our fields and on our plates, and be more discriminating about its sources. “How do we buck the system just a little bit?” Colin asks. “Think of oil. We’re definitely eating more of it: soybean oil, then palm oil—much more than other oils around the world. Although it isn’t immediately obvious that eating olive oil would be radical, in the big picture that’s exactly what it is. Eating olive oil is now a radical act. Eating anything that’s not rice, wheat, corn, soy or palm oil is radical.”

The revolution starts here, on our plates, by looking at the pillars of our own diets and by making simple changes. The way to take back this power for ourselves is to understand why we eat what we eat. And to understand what we’re losing—so we know what to reclaim.

Excerpted from BREAD, WINE, CHOCOLATE: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. Copyright © 2015 by Simran Sethi. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.

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