What we’re being offered appears at first to be diverse, until you realise it is the same kind of ‘diversity’ that is spreading around the globe in identical fashion; what the world buys and eats is becoming more and more the same. Consider these facts: the source of much of the world’s food – seeds – is mostly in the control of just four corporations; half of all the world’s cheeses are produced with bacteria or enzymes manufactured by a single company; one in four beers drunk around the world is the product of one brewer; from the USA to China, most global pork production is based around the genetics of a single breed of pig; and, perhaps most famously, although there are more than 1,500 different varieties of banana, global trade is dominated by just one, the Cavendish, a cloned fruit grown in monocultures so vast their scale can only be comprehended from the view of an aeroplane or by satellite.
Norman Borlaug’s work and the Green Revolution show us anything, it is that through human efforts and ingenuity, food systems can be transformed. As we have seen, that transformation was only ever designed to be short-lived; it was a clever fix for feeding the world at a particular point in time. Borlaug himself believed it could only be sustained for twenty-five to thirty years, but the world became locked into that way of feeding itself.
The consequences of monoculture agriculture should be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the news. The imminent extinction of the Cavendish banana and coffee are the most obvious examples, but one might also think of the recent spike in the cost of eggs attributed to a massive outbreak of avian flu or the staggering data about how little of mammalian biomass is wild. Humans have always sought to control the environment, but their capacity to do so increased exponentially in the 20th century such that the Wizards of the Green Revolution created enormously productive food systems that simultaneously made these systems less diverse and thus less resilient.
This, in essence, is the argument of Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction. As much a manifesto as an investigation, Saladino argues for the preservation of a diverse food system, in all meanings of the term.
Eating to Extinction is, in essence, interlocking case studies on a single theme. The book unfolds across thirty four case studies divided into ten thematic sections by type of food.
One set of chapters focus on how a particular heirloom variety of plant or animal can help provide sustainability to the modern food system. For instance, one chapter examines industrial chickens compared to the Black Ogye Chicken from South Korea, while others examine wheats and coffees that resilient against the effects of climate change, and another examines how wild banana strains can resist the types of blight that killed the Gros Michel and is now threatening the Cavendish. Elsewhere the threat comes from the clear-cutting of forests.
Another set of chapters focus on the cultural side of food systems that have been threatened by everything from authoritarian dictatorships in Albania to regulatory rules about how products with protected designation of origin must be produced (e.g. in terms of the cultures used for cheese) to the economic pressures that prompt young people to leave the old ways behind. Here the loss is both that of sustainable systems that evolved to survive under harsh conditions and a more profound loss of meaning that conditions people to accept what the industrial food system has on offer.
If this makes Eating to Extinction sound like a smörgåsbord of topics, you would not be wrong. These are an array of vignettes on a theme, which Saladino allows to lead him in a variety of different directions. One chapter, for instance, offers criollo cacao as a way to stimulate the Venezuelan economy without oil, a second explores how marine life can quickly bounce back in ocean preserves that ban deep-sea trawling, and still others profile individuals aiming to bring perry and traditional cheeses back to prominence in England. Every chapter follows from the same theme and works to serve the same general argument, even while often looking quite different.
What makes Eating to Extinction a compelling read is its balance between the horrors of the modern food system and an optimistic note. Each chapter interrogates the crisis of either monoculture or capitalism like modern meat chicken that matures in under a month and the Pu-erh tea that the harvesters are incapable of affording, which Saladino balances against the deep well of genetic diversity that is both under threat and offers possible sources of salvation.
Preserving these systems, he argues, is a choice, but one that is not too late to make. At least not yet.
I finished Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members just before the last book post went up. Since then, I have nearly S.A. Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi and I am working through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I rarely read two novels at once these days, but my wife and I decided to start a book club for just the two of us where we read a set amount each week and then talk about that section over a bottle of wine.