How your weekly shop could help prevent a mass extinction
By buying more diverse foods, you can not only support conservation efforts, but discover a huge variety of flavours.
All around the world, the way in which we produce, buy and eat food has never been more similar. You may think you have more choice than your parents or grandparents ever did, and on one level that is true. Whether you’re in London, Los Angeles or Lima, you can eat sushi, curry or McDonald’s; bite into an avocado, banana or mango; sip a Coke, a Budweiser or a branded bottle of water – and all in a single day.
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. And it’s not just the same brands – it’s the ingredients in those brands too.
Of the 6,000 plant species humans have eaten over time, we now mainly grow and eat just nine, three of which – rice, wheat and maize – provide half of all calories. Potato, barley, palm oil, soy and sugar bump this figure up to 75 per cent.
What’s less well known is that for each of these crops, we’re eating from a smaller number of varieties. Thousands of different wheats exist, but less than 10 make it onto the ‘recommended list’ issued to British farmers. It’s a similar story with the meat we eat; global pork production across Europe, the Americas and Asia is based around the genetics of a single breed of pig, the Large White; and in the poultry industry, just three genetic lines of chicken (owned by two companies) make up the bulk of the 70 billion birds slaughtered around the world each year.
This relatively recent phenomenon of eating from such a narrow selection of plants and animals, and just a few varieties or breeds of these, has resulted in a massive loss of diversity in farmers' fields and in our diets and an incalculable loss of biodiversity.
In the 20th Century, efforts intensified to produce more calories to feed growing populations, but in search of quantity, we sacrificed diversity. Crops and farm animals unique to their part of the world became endangered, some even went extinct.
Read more about conservation:
- 9 ways you can help to save insects from extinction
- Zoology in 30 seconds: conservation and extinction
We’ll never know for sure how much has been lost but there are clues inside the world’s largest seed vault, located on the Arctic Island of Svalbard. This is a repository for thousands of years of farming history and a place of safe keeping for seeds our ancestors treasured and saved generation after generation. Inside the vault are 213,000 individual samples of wheat, 170,000 samples of rice, 39,000 of maize and 21,000 samples of potato.
When a food is lost, we risk not only losing a distinctive flavour, but also a way of life and part of a culture. We also lose options for the future. Faced with the growing impact of climate change and extreme weather events – more frequent droughts, more floods and the spread of diseases that can devastate crops – we can add greater resilience to our food system by saving diversity.
In eastern Turkey, for instance, there’s an endangered wheat, grown by just a handful of farmers, with traits that give it greater resistance to a deadly fungus now spreading around the world; in India, there are rare rice varieties capable of producing grains even after they’ve been submerged under water for weeks; in Bolivia, types of potatoes tended by farmers high up in remote Andean villages are thought to hold the answer to the blight that caused the Irish potato famine.
As the world farms and eats in increasingly similar ways, foods such as these are at risk of disappearing. We all have a part to play in preventing this from happening, wherever we are in the world, and it starts with what we put in our shopping baskets.
Most of the world’s seeds are now in the control of just four corporations, and although hundreds of thousands of different samples of wheat are saved in seed collections, most of our bread and pasta is made from the small number of ‘approved’ wheats selected to be high yielding, quick growing and uniform.
The Green Revolution (a huge undertaking after the WWII by scientists and crop breeders to feed a hungry planet) resulted in the creation of monocultures of genetically identical plants. This approach required more synthetic fertiliser (manufactured with vast amounts of fossil fuel) and more irrigation.
Monocultures are the perfect environment for crop diseases, which can spread more easily from one genetically identical plant to another. But there are projects right across the UK now, set up to restore diversity to fields, growing ‘ancient’ or ‘landrace’ wheats and milling distinctive grains. Use this flour to bake your own bread and discover more unusual and complex flavours.
Despite there being more than 1,500 different varieties of banana, most shoppers around the world have access to just one: the Cavendish. With apples, we can usually only buy from a small selection (such as the Fuji, Red Delicious and Gala), and oranges are typically either Navel or Valencia. These varieties were picked from thousands of candidates, mainly for their ability to travel across the world in huge container ships and their relatively high levels of sweetness.
But having just a few varieties of fruit dominating the world’s farms and supermarkets is creating serious problems. Monocultures of the Cavendish banana and commercial orange crops are under threat from diseases (TR4 attacking bananas and citrus greening disease oranges).
Other varieties of bananas and oranges might have the unique genetic tool-kits we need for future food security. Seek out less familiar fruit varieties by getting involved in a community orchard, celebrate Apple Day and eat as seasonally as you can.
Nearly 2,000 grape varieties have been recorded, many of which are indigenous, ancient and highly adapted to their local environments. But it’s estimated that about 80 per cent of the world’s vineyards now grow just 10 or so ‘international’ varieties – the likes of Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah.
The good news is that it’s becoming easier to find wine made with less familiar varieties. In Georgia, in the Caucasus, thought to be the birthplace of wine, a network of farmers is working to restore the 500 indigenous grape varieties almost lost during the Soviet era.
Some of their wines are made in qvevri – clay pots stored underground, in which the first wines were fermented before the invention of the barrel. Winegrowers in other countries are also looking back to older grape varieties, and a network of producers now exists to protect ancient vineyards.
We’re not just relying on a few varieties of a small number of plants for our food, we’re also banking on just a few breeds for most of our meat. The 80 billion animals slaughtered each year are increasingly from a small selection of genetically uniform, larger and faster growing animals.
Many experts in zoonotic disease believe creating increasingly larger industrial units around the world, filled with thousands of genetically identical animals, provides an environment for future pandemics to emerge. This more intensive model also means we’re losing animals that fed communities for centuries and with particular traits adapted to their particular part of the world, again, traits we might need for the future.
Each county or region used to have its own cattle and sheep, and many different breeds of chicken existed. Farmers can only save these breeds from extinction if we eat them (the idea being that we should ‘eat less, but better quality meat’). This way these breeds can be conserved for the future.
There used to be as many cheeses in the world as there were communities, but numbers have fallen dramatically; even France, which is famed for its cheese diversity, has seen a steep decline.
Camembert de Normandie is now an endangered cheese. This type of Camembert is made with ‘raw’ or unpasteurised milk (which hasn’t been heat treated), and this was true for all cheese for 7,000 years.
Cheeses still made with raw milk have the potential to express the wild grasses and flora the dairy animals in that environment feed on, the breed of goat, cow or sheep whose milk was used, and the microbes unique to that ecosystem.
Pasteurisation was first introduced to make liquid milk safer, but it also resulted in greater homogeneity in cheese making. Now, half the world’s cheeses are produced with bacteria or enzymes manufactured by a single company, and most cheese is made with milk from the same breed of cattle (the Holstein).
Farmhouse producers, working on a smaller scale and making cheese with unpasteurised milk, are preserving microbial diversity as well as traditional cheese styles – and often using milk from rarer breeds.
Grow your own
The saviours of much of the food diversity that still exists include generations of small-scale farmers, gardeners and allotment holders. Often this is simply because they prized the flavours of a specific variety of pea, bean, cabbage or tomato. By growing your own, even in a small pot or a bag of soil, you can help save diversity, save on your food bill and have access to the freshest produce possible.
Saving many of the UK’s endangered varieties is The Heritage Seed Library, a charity set up in the 1970s to prevent traditional fruits and vegetables going extinct. In their catalogue you can find the Nutting’s Bernet Hero (a pea first grown in London in the 1860s) and the White Queen tomato, which arrived in Britain in the 1880s and was described as “fragrant, fruity & intensely sweet”. Members of the library have access to seeds that will produce food with unexpected colours, flavours and textures.
Still unsure where to start?
Focus on one of your favourite foods and start to explore it in all its diversity. Whether that’s chocolate, coffee, cheese or wine, find as much variation as you can, set off on a flavour adventure and help save something from extinction.
Read more about food:
- What is lab grown meat? A scientist explains the taste, production and safety of artificial foods
- Dr Michael Mosley: Is fermented food really good for your gut microbiome?
Dan Saladino is a journalist and broadcaster who makes programmes about food for BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. His work has been recognised by the Guild of Food Writers Awards, the Fortnum and Mason Food and Drink Awards, and in America by the James Beard Foundation. He was awarded the 2019 Jane Grigson Trust Award. He lives in Cheltenham but his roots are Sicilian.