Journalist and broadcaster Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction is a serious hunk of a book to give as a Christmas present – but reassure your recipients, it is an absolutely fascinating read. Scary but hugely uplifting.
Potentially catastrophic as global warming may be, many would view the loss of biodiversity across the natural world as being even more serious.The 2019 UN Sustainable Developement Goals Report found that ‘around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history – and that is not counting the insect and invertebrate populations in which the rate of decline has been if anything more extreme.
It is with the decline in biodiversity among food crops, the disappearance of local and indigenous food stuffs (cereals, fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, preservation and cooking techniques) that Dan’s book is concerned. A decline just as catastrophic as, for example, that in the insect world but one which we at least understand better – and are therefore, possibly, in a better place to arrest.
In the days when 100 miles was a long and rarely undertaken journey, not only did people live out their lives where they were born, but plants and animals did too, gradually evolving traits which would allow them best to survive in the conditons in which they found themselves, no matter how unfriendly these might be. Bere Barley on damp, cold, windswept Orkney; oca and potatoes in the snows of the Andes; sheep in the near Arctic Faroe Islands; murnong tubers in the deserts of South Australia; flat oysters in the Limfjorden off the Danish coast; kavilca wheat on the high, harsh plains of Anatolia. Each developed different strategies to allow them to flourish thus creating a massive genetic diversity. This meant that should disease attack or destroy one variety, there would always be another not too far away that had developed slightly differently and might therefore be resistant to that particular disease.
The Green Revolution
However, the massive growth in the world’s population over the last 150 years and the equally massive movement of those people off the land and into vast urban agglomerations – combined with the application of science to agriculture and animal husbandry – has totally shifted the balance. The mid 20th century saw not just the development of powerful artificial nitrogen based fertilisers but the breeding new fast growing, disease resistant mono crops. Together they enabling the ‘green revolution’ which increased yields by up to or above 40% thus averting hunger for millions. However, not only is the revolution running out of steam (crops are needing ever higher applications of fertiliser to produce ever lower volumes of crops) but there are other downsides.
The new crops needed high inputs of water (now becoming a scarce commodity) and expensive artificial fertilisers made from fossil fuels. Moreover to achieve the maximum growth potential, the plants had been continually interbred to achieve a single most productive strain with no genetic diversity. So if a disease strikes that universally grown variety, it has no natural resistence. Back in the day of multiple varieties, if disease struck one, then combining it with another similar but genetically slightly different plant could often create a disease resitant alternative. Now, there are rarely any alternatives.
And this is what Dan’s book is all about. The tiny fraction of alternative plants and animals that have, just about, survived the onslaught of the Green Revolution. Sometimes their survival is down to a handful of growers and breeders who have tenaciously clung to the traditional ways. Along with the visionaries from across the world who have been saving and preserving seeds from those plants which are now stored in vaults such as the tunnel under the remote Artic island of Svalbard.
A tiny handful of these (34 to be precise) Dan has tracked down – a tiny Red Mouth glutinous rice farm in the south of Sichuan; the criolla cacao bean in Venezuela; skerpikjøt mutton in the Faroe Islands; sweet oranges from his own family’s farms in Sicily – and describes them in fascinating detail while setting them in the context of the monocultures and mono breeds which have all but driven them to extinction.
This is not only an important book in raising awareness of the crucial importance of biodiversity in the food world, but a rivetting read. I had intended to dip into it over a few weeks, but actually found myself unable to put it down.
Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino Published by Jonathan Cape – £25 – from all good booksellers or on Amazon.