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A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating book review in The Telegraph of Eating to Extinction, a new book by BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme presenter Dan Saladino.

The title of the review is ‘Once, we ate 6,000 plant species. Now it is only nine’.

We think we have a lot of food diversity, mostly because of the varied cuisines we eat, but we are mistaken (emphases mine):

You think your experience of world cuisine reflects global diversity? The problem with my varied diet (if this is Wednesday then this must be Thai red curry with prawns) is that it’s also your varied diet, and your neighbour’s; in other words, it’s rapidly becoming the same varied diet across the whole world. Humanity used to sustain itself (admittedly, not too well) on 6,000 species of plant. Now, for more than three-quarters of our calories, we gorge on just nine: rice, wheat and maize, potato, barley, palm oil and soy, sugar from beets and sugar from cane. The same narrowing can be found in our consumption of animals and seafood. In short, we’ve learnt to grow ever greater quantities of ever fewer foods.

Dan Saladino’s Food Programme takes him around the world:

to meet his pantheon of food heroes, each of whom is seen saving a rare food for our table – a red pea, a goaty cheese, a flat oyster. So far, so magazine-y. And there’s nothing to snipe at in the adventures of, say, Woldemar Mammel who, searching in the attics of old farmhouses and in barns, rescued the apparently extinct Swabian “alb” lentil; nor in former chef Karlos Baca’s dedication to rehabilitating an almost wholly forgotten native American cuisine.

That said, it takes Saladino 450 pages (which is surely a good 100 pages too many) to explain why the Mammels and Bacas of this world are needed so desperately to save a food system that, far from breaking down, seems to be feeding more and more food to more and more people.

This worldwide similarity in food has come about because farmers around the world use the monocropping system, planting the same crop on the same fields year after year. By doing so, yields are reliable, but they come at the expense of heritage strains, which are becoming extinct.

Apparently, the world’s first seed bank was started in the then-Soviet Union nearly a century ago:

In the 1910s and 1920s the Soviet agronomist Nikolai Vavilov championed the worldwide uptake of productive strains, with every plant a clone of its neighbour. How else, but by monocropping, do you feed the world? By the 1930s, though, he was assembling the world’s first seed banks in a desperate effort to save the genetic diversity of our crops – species that monocropping was otherwise driving to extinction.

Heritage strains should be preserved:

They were bred over thousands of years to resist all manner of local environmental pressures, from drought to deluge to disease. Letting them die out is the genetic equivalent of burning the library at Alexandria.

Then there is the matter of animals for the table, such as the Svalbard chicken.

That said, there is some good news for Britons:

The British Middle White pig is rarer than the Himalayan snow leopard, says Saladino, but the stocks are sustainable enough that it is now being bred for the table.

The book covers something I recently saw in an episode of Inside the Mind of a Chef, which was about preserving mutton on the Faroe Islands by drying it:

Better to create a food system that, while not necessarily promoting rare foods (fancy some Faroese air-fermented sheep meat? Thought not) will at least not drive such foods to extinction.

… what the Faroe islanders get up to with their sheep is unlikely to have global consequences for the world’s food supply.

What the Faroe islanders are doing with home-produced air-fermented sheep meat, besides eating it, is showing the next generation the painstakingly slow method of drying it so that the tradition is not forgotten.

In the television show, one family showed how it was done. After several months of hanging in a shed, a mutton leg is ready to be eaten. It looks and smells awful; it is also covered in mould. The lady of the house washed the mould off very carefully, which took a while. Then she cut the mutton in thin slices. The Swedish chef who was on hand to try it said that it tasted earthy with a vague hint of the Faroes’ vegetation. Like it or not, it was part of the Faroese winter diet centuries ago.

Back to Saladino, who says that we can use heritage seeds to cross with existing strains:

Saladino says we need to preserve rare and forgotten foods, partly because they are part of our cultural heritage, but also, and more hard-headedly, so that we can study and understand them, crossing them with existing lines to shore up and enrich our dangerously over-simplified food system. He’s nostalgic for our lost food past (and who doesn’t miss apples that taste of apples?) but he doesn’t expect us to delete Deliveroo and spend our time grubbing around for roots and berries.

Unless, of course, it’s all too late. It wouldn’t take many wheat blights or avian flu outbreaks before foraged tubers and air-dried mutton are all that’s left to eat.

It would be great to see more forgotten heritage plants in our shops, especially greengrocers, but it looks as if we will have to wait a while longer before that happens.

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