In the early 1970s, American botanist Jack Harlan proclaimed that mass extinction was underway in America’s fields. “These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine,” Harlan wrote. He was referring specifically to the genetic resources within three crops that we most depend on: wheat, rice and corn. Forty years later, his words inspired another botanist, Cary Fowler, to launch an underground seed vault in Svalbard, Norway.
Journalist Dan Saladino unveils the work of Harlan and other visionaries in “Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them,” his impressively researched book about the variety of crops, animals and foods that have been tossed aside in favor of the monocultures that have come to dominate our food supply. Though they were meant to improve efficiency and yield by “feeding the world,” these crops and breeds are having unintended consequences. Many of today’s “improved” crops, which lack diversity because they come from patented seeds, have no defenses against fungi, viruses and insects — all of which are becoming more of a threat with climate change. The breeds of animals we rely on for food have also been narrowed on a global scale, making them more susceptible to diseases that could wipe them out.
One by one, Saladino, a food journalist for the BBC, shows how unique foods and crops have been neglected in favor of modern, supposedly “revolutionary” varieties. In India, the wild citrus fruit memang narang (“the fruit of ghosts”) was overlooked after 19th-century plant breeders bred out the bitter-tasting phenols, which are what give this fruit its potent health-bestowing properties and also serve as a defense against pests and disease. In Anatolia, Turkey, kavilca wheat, a type of emmer that’s been grown since Neolithic times, is not only more nutritious than today’s bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) but, thanks to its tightfitting husks, is also resistant to Fusarium head blight, a devious fungus that is threatening wheat crops. Kavilca and other ancient varieties of emmer may also have genetic resistance to wheat blast, a new disease that is decimating crops from Brazil to Bangladesh. (Because of the Green Revolution, which developed more productive crops, 95 percent of all wheat grown today is Triticum aestivum.) In China, red mouth glutinous rice was spurned in favor of high-yielding white rices known as IR8 and IR64.
And on and on. Saladino even has a chapter on alcoholic beverages, where he shows how industrially made wine has become popular in Georgia, the birthplace of natural winemaking, and how Belgium’s lambic beermaking tradition is at risk of dying out thanks to the global beer industry. (Saladino delivers this depressing fact: Today, 1 in 4 beers consumed around the world are brewed by just one company, A-B InBev.)
Another culprit is more personal: the gradual but decisive change in our palates. In part because of the ubiquity and popularity of Coca-Cola and other sugary beverages around the world, people — even Belgians — don’t crave the sour, complex flavors of lambic beers as much as they used to. In Russia, where a fermented sour beverage called kvass has been made for centuries, a government ad campaign squarely aimed at Coca-Cola, which had opened a bottling plant in St. Petersburg in 1995. “Say no to Cola-nisation. Drink kvass to the health of the nation!” read one ad, according to Saladino. The effort kept Coke from capsizing kvass for a bit but ultimately failed.
In some cases, as with the Faroe Islands’ skerpikjot — sheep’s meat that is fermented in sea wind for nine months until it’s covered in mold — the reader may wonder if the extinction of a particular food may be such a bad thing. (After all, now that the fishing industry has taken off in the Faroe Islands, its inhabitants won’t face starvation anymore.) But whether you hunger to try the delicacies Saladino describes or not, he makes one thing abundantly clear: These ancient culinary traditions kept people alive during hard times, and they’ve become an integral part of a region’s history and culture.
There is hope. In each country Saladino visits, he finds an underground of passionate citizens who are valiantly working to preserve their crops and food cultures. Sometimes it’s a botanist who has saved seeds and cultivates rare plants. Other times it’s a small-scale farmer, a cheesemaker or a cultivator of wild yeasts who is proselytizing, sharing knowledge and know-how with a younger generation. One example is miller Rae Phillips of Barony Mill, in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, whose father and grandfather also milled bere, an ancient form of barley that’s adapted to the harsh weather of the islands. Phillips came out of retirement in his 70s when he saw a new generation of Orcadian farmers, bakers and brewers who were excited about bere, which requires an intricate milling process. Before he died in 2018, Phillips passed his knowledge to a younger miller who keeps the tradition alive.
Saladino brings his subjects to life, even breaking bread with them as he seeks out these rare and important foods. His evocative descriptions make a culinary case for preserving them. In a rural village in Turkey, he is invited to join farmer Erdal Göksu and his wife, Filiz, for a feast where he tastes kavilca for the first time. “Filiz … added bowl after bowl to the table: cream and soft cheeses, pickled cabbage, peppers stuffed with spiced lamb and, at the centre of it all, a large dish piled with Kavilca shaped into a ring, its brown grains glistening with the fat and juices from the goose, with flakes of tender, buttery meat in the centre.” The sensual enjoyment of delicious, nutrient-rich foods may be as good an argument as any for saving them.
Hannah Wallace is a journalist who covers regenerative agriculture, food justice and start-ups. She lives in Portland, Ore.
Eating to Extinction
The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them
By Dan Saladino
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 464 pp. $30