By guest blogger Emily Vaughn, biodiversity program manager of Slow Foods USA
Extinction isn’t just for dodos and dinosaurs: Since 1900, 97 percent of the plant species on the planet have ceased to exist. Factors like rainforest depletion, intensified land use, and now global warming, are generally credited with driving that trend. But members of Slow Food USA are taking action to address another side of the story: industrial agriculture.
Only a narrow range of plant and animal varieties can hold up to traveling hundreds of miles from farm to plate—if they’re not ground up into processed food first—causing more delicate and particular foods to fall out of cultivation. How dramatic is the trend towards homogenization? Today, a full 50 percent of all food eaten worldwide comes from four plant species and three animal species. And beyond that, the regionally adapted varieties of each species are disappearing. How many of the 15,000 apple varieties that have been grown in North America have you ever seen at the grocery store?
Here’s why food diversity matters:
Impact. Regionally adapted foods are selected by evolution based on how well they’ve succeeded in the microclimate of their area, and as such, they often require less intensive maintenance. That’s good for farmers’ bottom lines (less dependence on fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation means more profit) and for the environment (less fertilizer means less toxic runoff into estuaries).
Food security. Relying on a shallow gene pool puts our food system on unsteady legs—diseases and pests spread like wildfire across monoculture fields, but are kept in check in a biologically diverse (often shortened to “biodiverse”) field or region.
Rootedness. Food varieties with local roots are a living connection to the history of the region where they originated. Their extinction makes the past that much more distant.
Promoting food biodiversity is an enjoyable way to take action against species loss. You can create a market for less-common food species, breeds, and varieties by shopping for them yourself, or working with community groups to increase local demand. Slow Food USA members counter the trend towards a homogenized food system by focusing their attention on specific foods or food traditions with ties to their region, and finding out how to bring them back into cultivation.
For example, look to the guinea hog. This diminutive swine was a perfect fit for backyard farmers in Charleston, South Carolina, where small plots couldn’t support a family of full-size hogs. As city dwellers abandoned the practice of urban livestock rearing, the market for the tiny guinea hog shrank, and with it went one of the most distinct flavors in the city’s cuisine. Members of Slow Food Charleston, led by chef Craig Diehl, are working in partnership with local livestock breeder Gra’ Moore and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to reestablish interest in the breed. They organize butchering classes (another asset of the guinea hog is that it is small enough to be butchered without heavy equipment), secure a place for the guinea hog on menus, and share recipes with the public. Thanks to the rebound in population size that resulted from this collaboration, the hog finally became abundant enough to eat without endangering its gene stock. Recently, Diehl became the first chef in 100 years to cook with the rare breed, and soon others will have the opportunity to enjoy this once-common meat treat.
Another way to support biodiversity is to hold a community dinner featuring endangered local foods that have a historical connection to your region. Having the chance to see, smell, and taste a rare food brings home the abstract idea of food diversity, and inspires new volunteers to take up the cause. When Slow Food members hold such dinners, they often turn to the US Ark of Taste to plan the menu. The Ark is a catalog of foods that are regionally relevant, in danger of extinction, produced sustainably, and exceptionally delicious. Anyone can nominate a food to the Ark (nomination forms are on our website), and some chapters like Slow Food Miami make a point of nominating a food every year.
For more stories about how Slow Food members are working to keep food biodiversity from going the way of the dinosaurs, sign up for our mailing list. And use the comment field below to share your own story!