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The Slow Loss of Foods We Love

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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Editor's Note: This is an excerpt 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.

By Simran Sethi

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 95 percent of the world’s calories now come from 30 species. Of 30,000 edible plant species, we cultivate about 150. And of the more than 30 birds and mammals we’ve domesticated for food, only 14 animals provide 90 percent of the food we get from livestock. The loss is staggering: Three-fourths of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species.

While these numbers are rough estimates, they speak to a startling trend: We rely on fewer species and varieties for food and drink — a treacherous way to sustain what we need in order to survive. It’s dangerous for the same reason investment experts tell us to diversify our financial holdings: Putting all our eggs in one basket (either figuratively or literally) increases risk.

A reduction in agrobiodiversity places us in an increasingly vulnerable position, where warming temperatures or a single pest or disease could severely compromise what we grow, raise and eat. This was, in part, the cause of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, when a third of the population was dependent on potatoes for food and an eighth of the population (about 1 million people) died when a disease known as potato blight ravaged the crop. It also contributed to Southern corn leaf blight, which wiped out 25 percent of American corn in 1970. And now it exacerbates the proliferation of wheat rust, known as the “polio of agriculture,” which is threatening 90 percent of African wheat.

It’s why plant geneticists are working around the clock to develop a new type of banana to replace the Cavendish, a variety that was introduced when the soil fungus Fusarium oxysporum, in the 1950s, wiped out the Gros Michel — the banana that used to be the one on store shelves. Those Cavendishes are now succumbing to Tropical race 4, a strain of the same fungus that decimated the Gros Michel.

The depletion of agrobiodiversity also includes what scientists call “genetic erosion.” Stefano Padulosi, senior scientist at the conservation research institute Bioversity International, explained to me — in another 20-minute interview that stretched to two hours — that the erosion manifests in different ways; some of the changes we see and some we don’t.

Stefano is a plant explorer known for his work on finding and saving neglected species of foods, ranging from pomegranate to arugula (the latter of which has earned him the nickname “Rocket Man”). I met him to better understand how the industrialization of seeds has transformed what ends up on our plates. What I learned was that industrialization is just one of many reasons for our limited food choices and changing diets.

“When an entire set of traits that make a certain variety or breed distinct from another is lost altogether,” Stefano said, “then we talk of the loss of that variety or breed. From a scientific point of view, variety is defined as a good combination of traits — like adaptation, taste or yield — but variety is also an expression of terroir, food culture and identity of people.” In other words, erosion is both genetic and cultural. These losses — and, in some places, slight gains — are due to a wide range of social and environmental reasons: from how we manage our land and financial markets to changes in where we live and what we eat.

Take, for example, the pistachio. When Stefano told me about the tiny nut, I finally understood how invisible a lot of this genetic and cultural erosion is — and how dramatically our diets have changed for reasons that don’t immediately connect back to food. The transformation of the pistachio industry was the unintended consequence of political strife, part of a cascade effect of trade restrictions that were meant to punish the captors of hostages. It had nothing to do with food or farmers.

Iran used to be the center of the world’s pistachio industry. Those little green nuts are actually seeds that Persians bred to split open, and they come from the same family of plants (Anacardiaceae) as mangoes, cashews and poison ivy. An integral part of Middle Eastern foods and celebrations, pistachios originated in Afghanistan and are one of Iran’s biggest exports after petroleum. Evidence of the nuts dating back to 6 B.C. has been found in both of these countries.

In 1929, botanist William E. Whitehouse traveled to Persia (now Iran) to collect pistachios in hopes of finding a variety that would be suitable for growing in America. Of the 20 pounds of nuts he gathered, only one variety flourished — in California’s San Joaquin Valley. To put this in perspective, a single nut weighs one-fortieth of one ounce. There are 320 ounces in 20 pounds. Out of everything he collected, one nut (seed) took root.

Food is bound to place. That small female nut was, at that time, the only one that could handle the climate and other environmental conditions of the United States. Whitehouse named the pistachio “Kerman,” after a famous carpet-making city near the birthplace of the nut. The tiny but mighty Kerman built a fledgling American pistachio industry that started to blossom in the 1960s and exploded decades later when, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter instituted a full trade embargo on Iran as a result of the 444-day hostage crisis. This included all agricultural products.

The ban devastated the Iranian pistachio market and empowered the United States to build its capacity for pistachio cultivation. Today, America is one of the world leaders in its production. The nearly 520 million pounds of pistachios that were grown domestically in 2014 all descended from that one Kerman, a variety that represents almost all of what is planted.

When Stefano and Luigi first told me about the reduction in agricultural biodiversity, I was incredulous. I had come to Rome to do research on seeds yet knew nothing of what they described. I had spent my life obsessed with food — and it was disappearing? Why hadn’t I heard about this? How was this possible?

The answer lies in the fact that many of these changes have happened slowly, over time. These losses in food are buried in the soil, tucked in beehives and hidden in cattle feedlots. They start with microorganisms invisible to the naked eye and echo through every link in our food chain — from soil to seed to pollinator, from plant to fish to animal — compromising the very ecosystems that make much of our food possible.

Click here to read more of "Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love."

Image credit: Book cover, "Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love"

Simran Sethi is a journalist and educator focused on food, sustainability and social change. Named the environmental “messenger” by Vanity Fair and a top 10 eco-hero of the planet by the U.K.’s Independent, Simran is the author of "Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love," detailing the loss of biodiversity in food and agriculture. She is an associate at the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute in Australia, a contributor for Orion Magazine and a recent visiting scholar at the Cocoa Research Centre in St. Augustine, Trinidad.

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