Human food is less and less diverse, warns new book

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Eat until extinction. By Dan Saladino. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 464 pages; $ 26.99. Cap Jonathan; £ 25

TIT FRENCH eat foie gras, the Icelandic devourer hakarl (fermented fish with a urine aroma), Americans give thanks by baking canned pumpkin in a pie. The range of human foods is not only a source of Epicurean joy, but a reflection of ecological and anthropological variety – the consequence of tens of thousands of years of parallel but independent cultural evolution.

And yet, as choice has multiplied in other ways, diets have been reduced and standardized. Even Parisians ended up leaving Starbucks on their boulevards. Dan Saladino, food journalist at BBC, reminds readers of what may be lost. In “Eat to Extinction”, he travels far and wide to find “the rarest foods in the world”. These include murnong, “a radish-like root with a crisp bite and the taste of sweet coconut”; for millennia it was a staple food for the aborigines of Australia, before almost disappearing. The unpasteurized version of the English Stilton, meanwhile, was rescued from the rules of hygiene by an American enthusiast who renamed it Stichelton.

The general theme of the book is the rapid decline in the diversity of human diets over the past century. In the stomach of a man who died 2,500 years ago, and whose body was preserved when he sank in a Danish bog, researchers found the remains of his last meal: “a porridge made from barley, flax and seeds from 40 different plants. ”. In East Africa, the Hadza, one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes, “eat from a potential wild menu made up of over 800 plant and animal species.” In contrast, most humans now get 75% of their calorie intake from just eight foods: rice, wheat, corn, potatoes, barley, palm oil, soybeans, and sugar.

Even within each of these food groups, there is homogenization. Decades of selective breeding and pressures from global food markets mean that farms everywhere are growing the same varieties of grain and raising the same breeds of cattle.

Why worry about having 25 varieties of wheat when only one can be optimized to produce more grain, more reliably and with the guarantee of the same taste, year after year? For the same reason that fund managers seek to diversify their assets. In a constantly changing world, diversity is an insurance policy. The pressures of climate change and the rapid spread of disease make this insurance all the more important.

The plight of the great white pig is a case in point. Imagine the quintessential farmed pig – pink, long-bodied, almost cartoon-like – and you will probably imagine a tall white. Originating in England in the 19th century, Large White quickly gained weight (i.e. meat) and could be kept indoors or out. From England, it has been exported to Europe, Australia, Argentina, Canada, Russia, America and China. Today, it fills the largest industrial pig farms in the world.

But in recent years, African swine fever has ravaged these farms, from China to Southeast Asia, via Mongolia and India. By the summer of 2020, it had reached Europe and may have killed nearly half of Chinese pigs and a quarter of those in the world. The homogeneity has made the world’s pig population a playground for pathogens.

Stories like this remind readers of the stakes, but the real delights of Mr. Saladino’s book are his stories of people who tried to resist dieting, sometimes heroically. Nikolai Vavilov, for example, founded the world’s first seed bank in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). He and his followers collected over 150,000 seed samples before being sent to a prison camp under Stalin. In 1943, Vavilov “was claimed by what he had spent his life preventing: famine”.

His seed collection, however, lives on thanks to the immense sacrifice of the environmentalists he inspired. Besieged by the Nazis and with Vavilov stranded in prison, they moved hundreds of boxes in a frozen basement and took turns keeping guard over their treasure trove of genetic diversity. “At the end of the 900-day siege,” writes Mr. Saladino, “nine of them were starved to death”. Among them was the curator of the rice collection, found dead “at his desk, surrounded by bags of rice”.

Mr. Saladino offers many wonderful vignettes of indigenous food cultures. Most enchanting is the symbiosis between the Hadza (pictured) and a feathered collaborator, which has evolved over thousands of years. He witnesses an elaborate song between his host and a small black and white bird and realizes that the exchange guides his group towards a baobab tree, on top of which is a hive of bees. The bird can find the nest, but “cannot reach the wax it wants to eat without being stung to death.” For their part, humans “struggle to find the nest but armed with smoke can appease the bees.”

Later that day, Mr. Saladino’s group arrives in a secluded hut next to a well. Inside are branded cookies and sugary sodas, witnesses to a global food industry that continues to move on. â– 

This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “Tastes refined”


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