What’s the USP? A global investigation into some of the world’s rarest foods in danger of disappearing from our diets, and how saving them could be part of the solution to fixing what the author says is a ‘food system that is contributing to the destruction of our planet’.
Who wrote it? Journalist and broadcaster Dan Saladino will be a familiar name to regular listeners of Radio 4’s The Food Programme for which he is a producer and presenter. Eating to Extinction is his first book.
Why should I read it? By relating the history of and telling the stories behind 34 foods in danger of extinction (a small sample of what Saladino says are one million plant and animal species under threat) including Kavilca Wheat from Anatolia; Geechee Red Pea from Georgia, USA; Middle White Pig from the Wye Valley and Kyinja Banana from Uganda), Saladino amply demonstrates his point that the current monoculture and resultant lack of biodiversity that defines the current global food system is unsustainable as it means, among many other things, crops are ‘at greater risk of succumbing to diseases, pests and climate extremes’. Saladino also considers the cultural impact of losing the heritage behind these foods, what he calls the ‘wisdom of generations of unknown cooks and farmers’.
Is it just going to leave me feeling depressed and anxious about food security? It’s unquestionably an eye opening read, but it’s not all bad news. In Australia for example, murnong, ‘a radish-like root with a crisp bite and the taste of sweet coconut’ that has been in sharp decline since the mid-19th century as the aboriginal population who farmed it has been decimated, is making a slow comeback. It is being grown in aboriginal community gardens and influential chef Ben Shewry has put it on his menu.
Should I buy it? Eating to Extinction is an important book that documents a turning point in our global food systems. Although Eating to Extinction is a work of some substance and heft (it runs to 450 pages including detailed notes), it’s not written in an academic style and is highly readable. Each chapter is a discreet entity making the book ideal for dipping in and out of, consuming it all in one go might be a little too alarming.
As an individual, the astonishing stats dotted throughout (did you know for example that more than half of all seafood consumed by humans is provided by aquaculture i.e. farmed fish?) might well inspire you to do your bit to help battle monoculture and adopt a more diverse diet that incorporates rare breed meat, wild seafood and heritage varieties of vegetables and grains and even for age for wild foods like seaweed, plants, herbs and flowers.
The good news is that, according to Saladino, it seems the major food producers appear to have begun to recognise how destructive the monoculture they’ve propagated really is. The then head of diary giant Danone told the 2019 Climate Action Summit that, ‘We thought with science we could change the cycle of life and it’s rules…We’ve been killing life and now we need to restore it’.
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
Buy this book:
Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them
£25, Johnathan Cape
This book has been shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food Award. Read more here.