‘Time is running out’: Dan Saladino talks about the importance of losing variety in our foods

dr.Saladin is a journalist and presenter for BBC 4’s weekly Food Program, where he has written about food and farming for 15 years. It’s a wonderful career for someone who loves food, culture – and showed them how important it is – and risky diversity. Her new book explores the stories of wild and endangered foods through the people, the land they come from, and the cultural traditions and identities they represent. From Tanzania, Syria and Turkey to the Faroe Islands, Scotland and Denmark, Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rare Foods and Why We Must Save Them is a journey through the innovative ways our ancestors learned to grow and preparing lentils, rice, chicken, honey, oranges and cheese for millennia. Every food and every society helps explain how, in an evolutionary blink, we’ve lost so much diversity in our diets and why that matters.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Uneven Earth: Seeds of Change In this mini-series, we explore the importance of biodiversity in food and how it is affected by the climate crisis.

Why is it important to lose diversity in our diet?

As a species we have evolved with a lot of variety but we have created a system based on uniformity and we see its fragility for example with Cavendish [banana] and Arabica [coffee]. It’s like putting all your savings into one company and expecting you to be the winner…which is silly. However, we have invested heavily in a very narrow range of genes and systems – to maximize yield and efficiency while neglecting other traits – and there is now strong evidence that this is a problem. Talk to growers who are already seeing big swings in temperature and water access and the weaknesses are noticeable. Diversity is important for food security, our health, the health of the planet, local economies and to give us choices for the future, the list goes on.

Dan Saladin’s book explains why variety is so important in our diets.

What are we missing in terms of flavor and human experience?

Get some Kavilka wheat from eastern Turkey – the ancient spelled that can grow in harsh, wet conditions at high altitudes fed the people who built the pyramids and has now put Stonehenge in jeopardy. It wasn’t just about making bread, they cooked it like pilaf with ducks and geese and loved how it smelled and looked in their fields. In most cultures, the sense that grain has a distinct flavor and characteristic has been lost in the culinary experience. A lot of variety was created by people figuring out how to survive in their part of the world, but those functional reasons were closely tied to culture. Some claim that humans are programmed to seek the good, but our tastes and choices have changed so much that we now lose that feeling. When we go back to the origins of our diet, the bitterness and acidity of citrus fruits, for example, have provided important clues to essential compounds. Now our tastes are getting sweeter, fruit companies are producing bigger, sweeter, plumper fruit, and we’ve been missing out on those important chemicals.

How did childhood summers with your grandmother in Ribeira, Sicily in the 1970s and 1980s influence your views on food and culture?

Ribera was known as the city of oranges, where every meal ends with oranges, and for me it was like going from the black and white fantasy world of British cuisine to a multicolored place where everyone was chatting and telling stories stories about food. Everyone had land to grow oranges and there was a lot of variety, and families could send their children to college because small farmers could earn a living. When I returned in 2011 as a food journalist, farmers told me this was their last harvest because they could no longer compete with the huge quantities grown year-round in Spain and elsewhere. Thousands of years of history, landscapes, traditions, family and identity have been lost. Now the only place to see the diversity that was in the orchards is the Botanical Garden of Palermo, where you will find exotic fruits of all shapes, sizes, flavors and colors. Food has been the most diverse part of the human experience, we’ve relied on it and enjoyed it for most of our history, but it’s no longer something we can do easily.

Most people know about endangered and extinct animals, so why do so few realize that our food is also under threat??

A farmer selects persimmon, a type of Japanese persimmon. Photography: Alami

Part of it has to do with the boom in cheap and plentiful food lately, so people haven’t had to think about what they’ve been missing out on. We talk about food traditions and lost skills, but we don’t connect these food memories to stories of survival: how people used nature to create enough food to survive. We’ve cast aside the ingenuity and complexity that took thousands of years to evolve outdated traditional diets and believe science will fix it all. But there are limits. Science is reductive, it completely bypasses the enormous amount of complexity that is now beginning to reach us. People have been talking about it for over a century, but we’re running out of time so we can just ignore it and be complacent.

Arco del gusto What inspired your book is an international catalog of dangerous foods launched by Italian journalists in the 1990s. The menu features thousands of foods, from rabbit and catfish to apples and okra, including including more than 350 foods in the United States. Why is this important?

In Britain, Victorians could eat an apple a day for four years and not eat two. All of these apples have been popular for a reason – flavor, disease fighting or because they were preserved – but today there seem to be a few options in any supermarket, but this is a superficially variety industrial with a very narrow range of softness. and crack. The year-round apple is, in a certain sense, a success story for very strong commercial and fruit companies, but in terms of quality, nutrition, complexity of flavors and textures, it has lost a lot.

The first thing we need to do is make sure people know how much diversity there is, because so few of us are dealing with it right now. The catalog shows you the presence of these foods and there is someone trying to memorize them.

What does the Russian invasion of Ukraine tell us about our diet?

It is a very important area for the production of wheat, barley, cooking oil ingredients and fertilizers, showing us the wider implications of our modern, interconnected diet. When things are going well, it’s going and it provides a low-cost food economy, but as we’ve seen with the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine, when things are going badly, it starts to go downhill. It is efficient and fragile at the same time and there is little flexibility. The questions raised by the war on the need to diversify the energy supply must also arise for the food supply. It’s about joining the dots.

Workers work on a farm in Kharkiv, Ukraine, damaged by recent fighting.
Workers work on a farm in Kharkiv, Ukraine, damaged by recent fighting. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

What is the answer in the future, a technological revolution or sustainable renewable agriculture?

I’m realistic and we probably need all of the above. I don’t think we will end up with a future food system solely driven by diversity, we will need new technologies and more industrial forms of food production because in some parts of the world it will be hard to give up. But there are enough specific examples that show why we must use the best science to unravel traditional diets and cultures, as they have kept man alive for thousands of years and made it bigger harmony with nature, being more beneficial both for the environment and for food. Standard. The endangered foods in the book won’t feed the world, but they do provide clues on how to.

Eat to Extinction Dan Saldino of Macmillan Publishing.

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