I loved this book. Each chapter could be read as a stand-alone article. But taken together, they offer a fascinating insight into how and why we eat as we do—as well as a devastating critique of what has been done to our food.
“The human diet has undergone more change in the last 150 years than in the previous one million years,” author Dan Saladino asserts at the start of Eating to Extinction. At the heart of this change is a loss of diversity.
For most of our evolution humans had a very varied diet. But today our food is characterised by a high level of uniformity and a lack of diversity. This ranges from the genetics of the world’s most widely consumed crops—wheat, rice and maize—to the meals they become.
Of the 6,000 plant species that humans have eaten over time, the world now mostly eats just nine. Three of them—rice, wheat and maize—provide 50 percent of all calories. If we add potato, barley, palm oil, soy and sugar—beet and cane—then that makes 75 percent of all the calories that fuel our species today.
We have lost all kinds of biodiversity in our jungles and rainforests, and in our fields and farms, as well as on our plate. One million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction.
But diversity matters. Over thousands of years humans nurtured diversity because we needed it. Having a small number of uniform crops means they are much more vulnerable to catastrophes and at greater risk from disease, pests and climate extremes. As Saladino explores, this is not a future problem but is already causing crop failure and threatening some of our key foods today. And there is a growing awareness of the importance of biodiversity to our own gut health. The richer our gut “microbiomes”—the collection of microbes in our bodes—the better for us. A more diverse diet means a richer microbiome in our gut.
Through tracing the stories of particular foods Saladino looks at why we have suffered such a loss of diversity. He takes us on a journey exploring how wild foods first became domesticated over thousands of years, and the transition from hunter gatherer societies to a more settled agriculture. He entwines the impact of slavery and colonialism, conquest and war on our food systems, and acknowledges how “in the last half a century trade, technology and corporate power have extended dietary changes right across the world”. Although he doesn’t name the system as such, he essentially traces the impact of modern capitalism and industrialised agriculture on our diet as they spread across the globe.
Along the way we learn some fascinating information. For example, the story of Murnong in Australia—a staple food of the indigenous Aboriginal people. Described as being “a radish like root with a crisp bite and taste of sweet coconut”, for thousands of years it grew abundantly. Yet by the 1860s—less than 100 years after the first colonists arrived in 1788—it was nearly extinct and knowledge of the plant lost to generations of Aboriginal people. The colonists had destroyed this crucial food source by introducing sheep, cattle, horses and rabbits as well as invasive species.
We discover where foods originated. For example, the birthplace of the apple is Kazakhstan. In fact, all domesticated apples originate from one area there called Tian Shan which could be said to be the world’s biggest orchard. As Saladino describes, it is the gene bank for all the world’s apples. And so “the biodiversity there holds the past, present and future of one of our most popular fruits”. Yet the human impact on the forests has been so severe that only part of the forest remains intact. Much of the wild diversity has already been lost, with more at risk.
Just about every type of food is covered—from vegetables and fruits, to meat and fish, from cheese and sweet dishes to alcohol and stimulants. These tell us not only about how humans domesticated and developed them, but also our ancestors’ endurance and imagination as they interacted with seeds, plants and animals. As a consequence different cuisines and food cultures developed across the world.
For me, perhaps the most important chapters are those that look at the domestication and history of maize, wheat and rice. They are the key food staples today that are at the heart of capitalist industrial agriculture that took off in the post war period.
Saladino is clear that the biggest loss of crop diversity has taken place in the decades since the Second World War. This was when the so-called “Green Revolution” took place. As other writers such as Eric Holt Gimenez have pointed out, it was not called the green revolution because it was environmentally friendly. It wasn’t. It was a counter to the “red revolutions” sweeping poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America at this time. As Gimenez says, “Modern agriculture was capitalism’s bulwark against rebellion”.
The “revolution” began the process of spreading the highly industrialised model of agriculture from the US across the globe. This meant exporting the use of high yielding hybrid seeds together with chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and big machinery to farmers in the Global South.
As a result thousands of traditional and local varieties of crops—especially wheat, maize and rice—were replaced by a small number of what were seen as super-productive hybrids. This led to a 90 percent reduction of agrobiodiversity, and a dependence on heavy applications of fertiliser and pesticides. All of which have impacted detrimentally on the environment.
But the loss of diversity has had other effects too. A “landrace” is a genetically diverse crop grown in a specific area. Its seeds are kept and sown year after year and passed down through many generations.
Using the example of wheat, Saladino shows how landrace wheats evolved as genetically diverse. This was for good evolutionary reasons since variation in the crop creates resilience. One ancient type of wheat is called Kavilca. It is what’s called an emmer wheat—one of the first wild grasses domesticated by Neolithic farmers. In a single hectare of Kavilca there could be as many as three million individual plants. Such genetic diversity allowed the landrace to adapt to longer term changes in climate and growing conditions.
Over thousands of years, landraces of wheat, rice, maize and other cultivated grains continually evolved and adapted to their local environment. As farmers and people travelled, plants and animals went with them. They had to adapt to their new locations, creating enormous variety. It meant as Saladino says, “Storms, soil, climate, altitude were “folded into their genes.” This is how the world ended up with so many varieties of corn, rice, wheat and other food crops.
The seed vault in Svalbard, Norway, gives a sense of the scale of variety and diversity. It holds 213,000 unique samples of wheat, 170,000 samples of rice, and 39,000 samples of maize. And this is not even all the types that have existed.
Maize, wheat and rice came in huge amounts of different sizes and colours. But hidden from view is their genetic diversity. This includes the plants’ structure and features. They include the ability to resist disease, survive in cold temperatures, grow in deserts, grow at high altitude, flower under low levels of sunlight or tolerate saline soils.
However, the new science of crop breeding central to the Green Revolution made it possible to select against diversity. This led to monocultures of genetically identical plants. Such uniformity is central to a mass production, industrialised model of farming. But it means the plants do not have the genetic diversity to resist disease, pests or climatic changes.
For example, in recent years wheat crops have been hit by a type of blight as well as a new disease called wheat blast. This reduced harvests in parts of Brazil and Bolivia by two thirds. It then spread to Bangladesh through a shipment of grain. As a result in 2016 thousands of farmers were ordered to set fire to their fields of unharvested wheat.
Similarly, there are some 1,500 varieties of banana. But the global trade is dominated by just one— the Cavendish. This is cloned fruit grown in vast monocultures, meaning it is not resistant to disease. In fact, the precursor to the Cavendish was the Gros Michel, which dominated banana production until the 1950s when it was hit by a deadly fungal disease. Now history is repeating itself and the Cavendish is under threat by a new fungal disease, TR4.
The solutions to food security pitched by people such Bill Gates are more technology. And genetically modified seeds stacked with traits to deal with floods, warming, drought and other climatic changes.
In contrast, Saladino argues that the key to solving many of the problems we face is to embrace diversity. Most diversity can be found at what is called the centre of origin. This is where a particular food was first domesticated. But we face a race against time before seeds are lost forever and a particular type of food goes extinct. Forests are being destroyed and the roll-out of industrialised agriculture continues to subsume areas. And traditional varieties of seed are still being replaced with hybrids and Genetically Modified (GM) seeds.
Saladino draws on the work of pioneering people over the last one hundred years or so. And he rightly highlights the role of key individuals whose work saving seeds and plants can help provide us with information that would have been lost.
But ultimately the scale of the problem is too vast for individuals to solve. We need a radical transformation of our agricultural and food systems so that they are no longer subject to the dynamic central to capitalism—accumulation and competition for profit.
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