‘We’re running out of time’: Dan Saladino on why the loss of diversity in our foods matters

Dan Saladino is a journalist and presenter of the weekly Kos Programme on BBC Radio 4 where he’s been reporting on food and agriculture for the past 15 jare. It’s a great career for someone who loves food and culture – and it has shown him how important – and precarious diversity is. His new book explores stories of wild and endangered foods through the people and the land they come from, and the traditions and cultural identities they represent. From Tanzania, Syria and Turkey to the Faroe Islands, Scotland and Denmark, Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, is a voyage through the ingenious ways our ancestors learnt to farm and prepare lentils, rys, hoender, honey, oranges and cheese over thousands of years. Each food, and each community, helps explain how in the blink of an evolutionary eye we lost so much diversity in our diets – and why it matters.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why does the loss of diversity in our food matter?

As a species we evolved with so much diversity but have created a system based on uniformity and we’re seeing the fragility of this for example with the cavendish [banana] and arabica [coffee]. It’s like putting your life savings into just one company and expecting it to be the winner … that’s a foolish thing to do. Yet we’ve invested so much in a really narrow range of genetics and systems – to maximise yield and efficiency while neglecting other traits – and now there’s clear evidence that this is problematic. Speak to farmers who are already seeing big fluctuations in temperature and access to water and the vulnerabilities are clear. Diversity matters for food security, our health, the planet’s health, for local economies, and to give us options for the future, the list goes on and on.

What have we lost in terms of flavour and the human experience?

Take Kavilca wheat from eastern Turkeyan ancient emmer wheat that can grow in harsh, damp conditions at high altitudes that fed the people who built the pyramids and Stonehenge which is now endangered. It was not just for bread making, they cooked it like a pilaf with duck and goose, and love the way it smells and the way it looks in their fields. In most cultures, we’ve lost the sense that wheat has a flavour and distinctive characteristic with a culinary experience. So much diversity was created by people figuring out how to survive in their part of the world but these functional reasons were interconnected with culture. Some argue that humans are programmed to seek out the good stuff, but our tastes and choices have been so heavily edited that we’ve lost that sense now. When we go back to the origins of our food, bitterness and sourness in citrus fruits for example provided important clues to essential compounds. Now our palates are much sweeter, fruit companies have bred larger, sweeter, fleshier fruits and we’ve lost these important chemical compounds.

How did the childhood summers spent with your grandmother in Ribera, Sicily during the 1970s and 1980s influence your perspective on food and culture?

Ribera was known as the town of oranges, each meal finished with oranges, and for me it was like going from the black and white world of bland British food to a technicolor place where everyone was arguing and telling stories about food. Everyone had a plot of land to grow oranges and there was so much diversity, and families could send their children to university because small farmers could make a living. When I went back in 2011 as a food journalist, farmers told me it was their last harvest because they no longer compete with the huge volumes grown year round in Spain and elsewhere. Thousands of years of history, landscape, tradition, family and identity have been lost. Nou, the only place to see the diversity that once existed in the orchards is at the Palermo botanical gardens where you’ll find weird looking fruits of all shapes, sizes, flavours and colors. Food was the most diverse part of the human experience, we depended on and enjoyed this for most of our history and yet it’s no longer something we can easily do.

Most people know about endangered and extinct animals, why are so few aware that our foods are also under threat?

It’s partly to do with the success story of cheap food and abundance in recent times, so people haven’t had to think about what’s been lost. We do talk about food traditions and lost skills, but don’t connect these food memories to what are survival stories: how people used nature to create enough food to survive. We’ve dismissed this ingenuity and complexity which took millennia to evolve as traditional outdated food systems, and have a belief that science will fix everything. But there are limits. Science is reductionist, it completely bypasses huge amounts of complexity that’s now starting to catch up with us. People have been talking about this for more than a century, but we’re running out of the time that we can afford to ignore it and be complacent.

The Arc of Taste, which inspired your book, is an international catalogue of at-risk foods started by Italian journalists in the 1990s. The list profiles thousands of foods from rabbits and catfish to apples and okra including more than 350 in die VSA. Why is this important?

In Brittanje, Victorians could have eaten an apple a day for four years and never eaten the same one twice. All these apple varieties were valued for a reason – flavour, disease resistance or because they kept – but today in any supermarket it looks like there’s some choice, but it’s superficial industrial diversity with a very narrow range of sweetness and crunchiness. The all-year-round apple in one sense is a success story for commerce and extremely powerful fruit companies, but in terms of quality, nutrition, and complexity of flavours and texture, so much has been lost.

First thing we need to do is to make sure people know how much diversity exists because so few of us come into contact with it now. The catalogue shows you these foods exist and someone out there is trying to save them.

What does Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tell us about our food system?

It is a very important region for wheat and barley production, and for the ingredients for cooking oil and fertiliser, which shows us the wider consequences of our interconnected modern food system. When everything’s fine, it works well and delivers a cheap food economy but, like we saw with the pandemic and now the Ukraine war, when things go wrong, it starts to break down. It is both efficient and fragile, there’s little resilience. The questions raised by the war about the need to diversify energy supplies, should also be raised for food supplies. It’s about joining the dots.

What’s the answer going forward, a technological revolution or sustainable regenerative farming?

I’m a realist, we’ll probably need all of the above. I don’t think we will end up with a future food system that’s driven purely by diversity, we will need new technologies and more industrial forms of food production because it will be hard to relinquish in some parts of the world. But there are enough specific examples that illustrate why we should be using the best science to unravel traditional food systems and crops because they kept humans alive for thousands of years and did so in greater harmony with nature, and were more beneficial on every environmental and nutritional measure. The endangered foods in the book aren’t going to feed the world, but provide clues on how we might do that.

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