Loving Food To Death

9781770414358_custom-bf6d1d71924fbd2a8904de5d2c8f72d9dd530137-s400-c85Thanks to Luisa Torres for this author interview and book review on a topic we started posting about in 2011, and we unfortunately have continuously found an abundance of stories about, but will continue sharing:

We humans love food to death — literally.

From mammoths to passenger pigeons, we have driven our favorite meals to extinction through overhunting and habitat destruction. And globally, our tendency to overharvest just a narrow range of crops has limited the variety of foods we eat.

“When it comes to fruits and vegetables, we have access to only a fraction of the diversity that existed a century ago,” says Lenore Newman in her forthcoming bookLost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food (out Oct. 8).She is the Canada research chair in food security and environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, in British Columbia.


An engraving dating from the 19th century depicts passenger pigeons, once one of the most common birds in North America but now extinct because of overhunting and deforestation.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty

In her book, Newman explores how human activity has limited our food options and still threatens what we are able to put on our plates.

“I think the important lesson that I took away from writing this book was realizing that things can — and do — go extinct even if we really love them,” Newman told NPR. Silphium, a plant that was critical to Roman and Egyptian culinary society, is one of many examples of foods we loved that are now considered extinct. The stalk of the silphium plant was used to flavor food, and its leaves were fed to sheep and cattle to improve the flavor of their meat. Newman says the extinction of silphium taught us that loving a food is not enough to keep it in existence: “We actually have to fight to be conscientious, especially as we have a bigger impact on the planet,” she says. “We need to be a little more thoughtful about how we eat.”

NPR spoke to Newman about the foods we’ve already lost, the future of meat production and the changes we need to make to preserve our current culinary variety.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

NPR: In the book, you write that we have lost 90 to 95% of vegetable cultivars and 80 to 90% of fruit cultivars. How did this happen?

It sounds a lot worse than it is because we’re always making new ones. Before we moved food around the world the way we do now, every region would grow as many varieties as it could to extend the season of common foods. For example, you’d grow early apples and you’d have a big bunch of apples; then you’d have some late apples right into the very end of the year. When we started shipping foods from regions in other climates, we stopped growing some of the varieties that might have been great but didn’t produce quite as much or didn’t ship as well. So we went from a seasonal approach to global trade. And in some ways, there’s nothing wrong with that, other than it meant we focused on durability rather than flavor. We’re seeing a bit of a return to try to bring some of those varieties back, because they do have neat flavor and culinary profiles. But a lot of them are gone for good, and there’s no way to bring them back. So that’s a big loss.

You write that we eat only a tiny fraction of the 300,000 plants available. Is it possible to expand our current culinary variety?

It totally is. There are people around the world, known as fruit hunters and plant hunters, that go out looking for interesting wild varieties or varieties that haven’t really been cultivated. But taking a plant from wild variety to the store is a very difficult process. It takes a long time [and] there’s a lot left to discover. The Amazon rainforest is a great example. Each square meter of that rain rainforest has more species than some northern forests do. We don’t know what those species are. We’ve never documented them. So, in theory, we should be bringing new foods into the system. But if we destroy all of our wild biodiversity, we are going to be stuck with what we have…

Read the whole interview here.

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