Ending edible extinction: Why we need to revive global food diversity

This story was originally published on Yale e360. Read it here.

In August 2020, contained in the cupping room of a London roastery, a team of botanists and baristas gathered to taste a coffee species that the majority believed had been lost eternally. It was a vital moment. Coffee experts had spent years searching in West Africa for the few remaining trees of this species, even issuing “wanted posters” to farmers asking in the event that they had seen it.

The coffee, stenophylla, had last been recorded in Sierra Leone within the Nineteen Fifties, but civil war and widespread deforestation had pushed it to the brink of extinction. In 2018, with the assistance of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, a small cluster of stenophylla trees were found, which two years later produced just nine grams of beans. The primary sips provided hope. “It’s fragrant, fruity and sweet,” said Aaron Davis, Kew’s senior research leader for Crops and Global Change. “Stenophylla is a coffee with real potential.”

Since then, seeds have been collected from the surviving trees in Sierra Leone, and 5,000 seedlings are being grown in nurseries. This is critical for us all, not only coffee aficionados. That’s because saving diverse foods, whether plant species or animal breeds, will give us the choices we’ll need in an increasingly uncertain future.

For the reason that Second World War, we’ve created a highly productive but incredibly fragile food system.

The case of stenophylla is just one among almost 40 such stories I discovered while researching my book, “Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Have to Save Them.” In it, I argue that we’re at a pivotal moment in our food history and in a race against time to avoid wasting diversity.

Stenophylla helps illustrates the purpose. Although 130 coffee species to this point are identified, the world will depend on just two, arabica and robusta. Each of those are vulnerable to climate change. Arabica is best suited to temperatures around 66 degrees Fahrenheit; fluctuations in this could reduce productivity and encourage coffee leaf rust, a devastating fungal disease. Robusta, an inferior-tasting species, fares barely higher, growing at low elevations across much of wet-tropical Africa, nevertheless it needs consistent moisture all year long.

Stenophylla, then again, can address higher temperatures and possesses greater tolerance to drought, in addition to being a great-tasting coffee, one which Victorian botanists even described as “superior” to arabica. If arabica starts to fail, because it did catastrophically across Southern Asia within the nineteenth century and again in Central America in 2014, hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers can be affected. History will repeat itself: Coffee supply chains can be put in danger; family incomes will fall; and regional economies can be devastated, triggering waves of migration. We want to maintain our options open.

For the reason that Second World War, we’ve created a highly productive but incredibly fragile food system. Like an investor with a stock portfolio of just a number of holdings, we removed a vital safety net for our food supplies: diversity. By narrowing the genetic base of the worldwide food system and specializing in highly productive but increasingly uniform crops and animal breeds, we have now increased our vulnerability to the impacts of climate change: extremes of temperature, more virulent outbreaks of disease, droughts, and erratic rainfall. Diversity gives us options and provides resilience.

Researchers Aaron Davis of Kew Gardens (left) and John Brima of the Sierra Leone Forestry Department with a stenophylla coffee plant. RBG KEW; KLAUS STEINKAMP / ALAMY

In lower than a century, many of the world has change into depending on a small variety of crops for its sustenance. For the reason that dawn of agriculture (roughly 12,000 years ago) humans have domesticated around 6,000 plant species for food, but now just nine provide the majority of our calories, and 4 of those — wheat, corn, rice and soy — supply roughly two-thirds of that intake. The bottleneck doesn’t end there. Despite the large genetic variation found inside these crops, just a number of varieties of every are chosen to be grown in vast monocultures.

In Victorian Britain, it was possible for people to eat a special apple daily for greater than 4 years and never have the identical one twice. Today, supermarkets typically offer 4 or five varieties, all extremely similar in levels of sweetness and texture. In the US, initially of the twentieth century, farmers grew 1000’s of various locally adapted varieties of corn. By the early Nineteen Seventies a small variety of hybrids dominated, and all were later found to be at risk of a disease called leaf blight.

Perhaps most famously of all, although there are greater than 1,500 varieties of banana, global trade is dominated by only one, the Cavendish, a cloned fruit grown in vast monocultures and increasingly in danger from a devastating fungal disease, TR4. Where nature creates diversity, the food system crushes it.

The decline in the range of our food, and the proven fact that so many foods have change into endangered, didn’t occur by accident; it’s a completely human-made problem. The largest lack of crop diversity got here within the many years that followed the Second World War when, in an attempt to avoid wasting hundreds of thousands from starvation, crop scientists found ways to provide grains similar to rice and wheat on an outstanding scale. To grow the additional food the world desperately needed, 1000’s of traditional varieties were replaced by a small number of latest, super-productive ones. The strategy that ensured this — more agrochemicals, more irrigation, plus latest genetics — got here to be often called the “Green Revolution.”

world cereal production

Farmers have grown more cereals on roughly the identical amount of land for the reason that Green Revolution. OUR WORLD IN DATA

Due to it, grain production tripled, and between 1970 and 2020 the human population greater than doubled. However the danger of making more uniform crops is that they change into vulnerable to catastrophes. A worldwide food system that will depend on only a narrow choice of plants is at greater risk of succumbing to diseases, pests and climate extremes.

Although the Green Revolution was based on ingenious science, it attempted to oversimplify nature, and that is beginning to backfire on us. In creating fields of equivalent wheat, we abandoned 1000’s of highly adapted and resilient varieties. Far too often their useful traits were lost. We’re beginning to see our mistake — there was wisdom in what went before. And there are encouraging developments: Wherever you look on the earth, yow will discover people working to avoid wasting an endangered food and preserving the range all of us need.

In India, farmers are looking once more to landrace, or native, varieties of millet. Millet is a nutrient-packed and diverse cereal that sustained generations of individuals in India. But British colonizers, unaware of millet’s unique dietary qualities and resilience, replaced it with varieties of bread wheat and money crops similar to indigo. Those millets that survived were mostly relegated to animal feed. The decline of millet continued after Indian independence and was intensified by the Green Revolution as rice cultivation expanded. Consequently, the last harvests of many millet varieties were recorded within the early Nineteen Seventies.

Despite its many achievements, the Green Revolution locked us into an unsustainable system.

Amongst these was a millet grown by the Khasi people of Meghalaya, in northeast India. Their millet was called Raishan, an ivory-colored grain cooked into soups and baked into biscuits and flatbreads. Like hundreds of thousands of Indians, the Khasi became depending on the state-run Public Distribution System, which today provides $2.25 billion price of subsidized food — mostly rice, wheat and sugar — to India’s poorest 160 million households. Millet — labor-intensive to reap and to mill — was the primary food they stopped growing themselves. Then, in 2008, in India and in the remainder of rice-growing Asia, an enormous supply crisis brought on by a sequence of bad harvests, disease outbreaks and low grain reserves hit food systems. Governments responded by banning rice exports, which in turn triggered panic and an enormous price spike. In most of the Khasi villages of Meghalaya, one response was to bring back lost millets.

In 2017, as a part of the research for my book, I visited one among these villages, Nongtraw, at the underside of a valley so steep it could possibly only be reached by climbing down the two,500 steps cut into the landscape. In one among the bamboo huts, I watched as a milling machine did in 10 seconds what used to take an hour with a pestle and mortar.

The Khasi villagers of Nongtraw now appear to be pioneers, as millet is being seen as one solution to a lot of India’s food problems. With a weight loss plan that became heavily depending on modern varieties of white rice and refined wheat flour, India suffers from a triple burden of malnutrition: One in nine people is undernourished; one in eight adults is obese; and one in five people is affected by some type of micronutrient deficiency.

kong bibana

Indian farmer Kong Bibiana in her millet field within the village of Nongtraw. NORTH EAST SLOW FOOD & AGROBIODIVERSITY SOCIETY

One other problem facing India is water — or the shortage of it. Half of India’s rice crop is irrigated by underground water supplies, and Indian aquifers are emptying at a faster rate than they’re being replenished. When a team of scientists — including water experts, plant breeders and nutritionists — calculated what would occur if large areas of water-intensive rice cultivation were replaced with millets and sorghum, they found advantages on every level: more dietary nutrients, lower greenhouse gas emissions, greater resilience to climate change, reduced water and energy use. All of this might be achieved without losing a single calorie or expanding croplands, they concluded.

“Despite its many achievements, the Green Revolution locked us into an unsustainable system,” says lead researcher and food systems expert Kyle Davis of the University of Delaware, “and without crop diversity we won’t break out.” This makes endangered varieties of millet, similar to Raishan, appear to be a food of the long run, not one to be lost to the past.

In 2017, a world team of crop scientists modeled the impact of rising temperatures on yields of major crops. Their research showed that “each degree-Celsius increase in global mean temperature would, on average, reduce global yields of wheat by 6 percent, rice by 3.2 percent, maize by 7.4 percent, and soybean by 3.1 percent.” There are varieties of all of those crops, lost to farmers fields within the twentieth century but stored away in seed banks, that, similar to Raishan millet, possess traits that can give us greater resilience for the long run.

And constructing resilience in food systems in a single a part of the world can profit others, as is the case with efforts to preserve an endangered form of wild vanilla present in central Brazil, essential to a community often called the Kalunga.

wild vanilla pods in Brazil

Wild vanilla pods within the Cerrado region of Brazil. RUSTY MARCELLINI / SLOW FOOD BRASIL

Descendants of escaped slaves, the Kalunga created a network of villages within the Cerrado, the immense plateau of savannah, grasslands and tropical forest that takes up nearly 1 / 4 of Brazil’s land mass. Here, in addition to growing rice, beans and sesame, the Kalunga use wild plants, amongst them an endangered form of wild vanilla with which they brew infusions and flavor food. Its pods are larger than all other known kinds of vanilla — it’s more the dimensions of a banana than a bean — and its taste is more intense. The pods are harvested in spring, mostly from along the rivers that wind through the Cerrado’s forests, where it grows amongst moriche palms. For the Kalunga, going in the hunt for the pods is like mushroom foraging; everyone has a secret patch. But even with this data, finding a pod isn’t guaranteed because vanilla-loving monkeys provide fierce competition.

Neither the Kalunga nor the monkeys are the explanation for the vanilla’s endangered status, nevertheless; newly arrived farming businesses and mining corporations are clearing or degrading the land and driving the lack of biodiversity.

The Kalunga will help preserve the Cerrado’s remaining biodiversity, but only in the event that they are supplied with economic opportunities to accomplish that. That is where the wild vanilla is available in. “By protecting the Kalunga communities, we will protect the Cerrado,” says Alex Atala, one among Brazil’s most high-profile chefs. “The wild vanilla provides an economic opportunity. The plant may give the Kalunga settlements a future, and the communities will help keep a check on the expansion of soy farming.”

Our broken food system must be rebuilt with diversity at its core.

Projects have been arrange to assist the Kalunga hand-pollinate the vanilla plants (to extend yields) and to enhance their processing techniques. “One family could make $50 a day” Atala says, “more cash than welfare payments or the wages paid by the illegal mines.” Saving the Cerrado isn’t nearly protecting the rivers and the forests — its people have to be protected as well, he believes. “They’re defenders of biodiversity. Why? Because they depend upon it.”

But on the other hand, all of us do. Even though it’s less well-known than the neighboring Amazon, the Cerrado is one among the richest centers of biodiversity on the earth. As one among the world’s major carbon sinks, its preservation is significant within the fight against the climate crisis.

Transformation of the food system and the necessity to rethink farming gave the impression to be low down on the agenda at COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow in November. Not one among the ten themed days was dedicated to agriculture or our eating habits. But around the globe, grassroots food heroes and Indigenous activists take it upon themselves to conserve diversity, save endangered foods and keep alive knowledge and skills, some for reasons of identity and culture, others to construct resilience and increase self-sufficiency.

Our broken food system must be rebuilt with diversity at its core. This isn’t a call to return to a mythical or halcyon past, but a plea to value and have fun the ingenuity and legacy of generations of farmers and food producers. It’s as much as us to proceed their legacy.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here