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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Endangered food species

I know we've hunted sources of food into extinction. The authors devote a chapter entitled Culinary Extinction to the topic in a fascinating book I've just finished; Delicious: The evolution of flavor and how it made us human. They hypothesize that our early ancestors, the Clovis people, found mastodon and mammoth meat irresistible - especially the ribs, neck, and feet - to the point of killing off these titanic beasts in spite of themselves, while sparing other, less tasty species.

Passenger pigeons that roamed the skies of the North American continent by the billions at one time were felled for sport, stews, and pies with such relish that the birds were wiped out by 1900.

I didn't think about how our more recent consumption habits (that rely on husbandry and agriculture, not spearheads or shotguns) could be endangering food species from across the kingdoms of life until I read about the Museum of Endangered Foods.

This is a provocative project from a creative agency in Spain called Sharp & Sour. What's on display in these virtual museum exhibits? Some of our most basic and loved foods. Staples like potatoes, fish (broadly), peanuts, chickpeas, soy, coffee, bananas and honey. Chocolate and wine too. The common threat to these endangered foods is climate change. You've likely heard about the plight of the honeybee. Legumes need moist soil for a long growing season, so they won't fare well in the increasingly irregular rainfall patterns around the globe. Potato diversity is at risk because of the drying out of land. We could lose a quarter of current potato species. Bananas and coffee beans are under threat from rising temperatures and from fungi spurred on by global warming. Grapes are finicky. Grapes need the right balance of hot and cold days. Balance is not in the forecast. Avocado is on the list too. The avocado is a delicate tree that siphons too much water (as does the cacao tree) to be viable, especially as it grows in popularity. I just read that we had a record monthly shipments of avocados in January, up 33%. Per capita consumption in the US has doubled since 2010 to 8.5 pounds per year, per a Rabobank study.

With all the shop talk about the growth and potential of alternative proteins, and real world, pop culture alternatives to beef on the shelf and on fast food menus you might think we could or should guesstimate an extinction date for beef. That maybe the folks curating this museum of endangered foods could provoke us even further with a picture of hanging carcasses in a meat locker with a paragraph full of optimism as a counterpoint to the climate change cautionary tale captions around the avocado and the rest.

That would be premature. The hype around beef alternatives can lead some to overstate our willingness to give up beef, and meat in general. Beef consumption has been inching up recently and is projected to grow, not decline, in the near future anyway.

There are different forces pushing and pulling on beef consumption. I came across an interesting one the other day. Epicurious, one of the largest recipe sites in the US, stopped publishing new beef recipes, quietly in 2020, then quite emphatically earlier this year. The Epicurious editors make the case that beef takes too big a toll on the environment to continue to support its consumption through recipes, articles, and newsletters. This stance in support of sustainability, from a taste-making force in our food culture, will not single-handedly change attitudes but, to me, does signal a shift that will have a long-term effect. But, trying, adopting, sharing, and re-sharing recipes is a slow-moving current of change.

Epicurious says no one has complained about discovering vegetarian and meatless recipes instead of new, beef-centered ones. We may be turning the corner, or at least putting a periscope around the corner to see what might be on the other side of carnivorism.

Also, there are folks bringing food species back from the brink. A few months ago I spoke with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, the company he founded more than twenty years ago, whose mission is to make available free seeds to those who wish to recapture the flavors and textures of long lost grains and legumes once grown in the South. He explained to me how the Carolina rice system was the backbone of agriculture from coastal Maryland all the way down to Florida until the Civil War, and how this polyculture system built on rice and legumes grown together, was all but stamped out by Jim Crow. By some estimates, he told me, one third of all crop species cultivated in the South were lost by the Great Depression. Anson Mills has brought back things like Carolina gold rice, Sea Island red peas, grits and hominy from Antebellum heirloom corn, and benne, a plant with culinary and medicinal purposes. They sell benne seeds (from which our sesame seeds descend) and bennecake flour, but I sampled Carolina gold rice, preparing it as Glenn suggested by not letting the rice absorb all the water and drying it out in the oven. It was awesome. Nutty in its own way. And luscious like ice cream. Let's not let this rice become endangered again.

On the one hand, humans are nothing if not adaptable. We can learn to eat a very wide variety of foods. If we lose one species as a food source we can turn to another for fuel, and even learn to love it. In some sense, maybe mostly a poetic one, we are biologically primed to adapt to new tastes and textures in that the cells in our tastebuds are renewed every 9 to 15 days.

On the other hand, 2050 is the projected extinction date for most of the foods in the Museum of Endangered Foods, though the last bottle of wine will be bottled in 2100. 2050 is just two generations removed. What is a good substitute for all we do with potatoes and bananas? How about coffee? There is nothing like chocolate.

Here's a thought experiment for you. What are the alternatives to the alternatives being used to mimic meat? The most often used meat protein replacement right now is soy. What if there's no soy by 2050? Legumes are good meat substitutes too, and they are also threatened.

So, what are we going to eat by the end of the century? The indestructible cockroach, heat-loving algae and primordial fungi? Insects, seaweed, mushrooms, fermenting bacteria. THIS is where food start-up investment is going.

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