The Importance of Bringing Biodiversity Back to Our Plates—and Lives

  • Wheat, rice, corn and soybeans headline a list of just 30 species of food crops that now make up 95 percent of the calories consumed globally. Photo: Paulo Avila via Flickr

November 20, 2015

Here’s a cold, hard fact about the homogenization of our food supply: 95 percent of the world’s calories come from just 30 species. And journalist and author Simran Sethi is concerned about that. Not only because the lack of agricultural biodiversity poses a threat to global food security. But in losing a diverse diet, we also stand to lose important cultural traditions. Recently, Kara Holsopple chatted with Sethi about some of these issues. Here are some highlights from the interview.

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On the growing homogenization of the food supply

“If you think about it the way we think about an investment portfolio, if we’re advised by somebody, what they all say is don’t put everything in one basket. Because if you put everything in one stock, and that stock crashed, you would lose everything. So the exact same thing is happening to food. Our diet has now collapsed globally into wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and palm oil. And we’re growing the same types of foods and the same varieties, and they tend to be the ones that are high-yield and disease resistant. But the problem with doing this is, if one of them succumbs to a disease or pest, then what happens? If we haven't been growing diverse varieties of not only those five foods, but all the foods that we love, then we’ll lose them.”

On the loss of cultural traditions that accompanies losses of biodiversity

“I was in Italy, interviewing scientists, and they are concerned with this “genetic erosion” and the loss of agricultural biodiversity. And that translates down into the loss of biodiversity in our soils, the loss of diversity in the kinds of seeds that we're sowing, the loss of diversity in pollinators. But for me, as I was hearing about this, what I realized was that through industrialized agriculture, we’re losing something I consider even more precious: the knowledge that farmers already have. That indigenous wisdom, that traditional knowing, those traditions of growing are what disappear when we start to sow fields full of genetically engineered corn or hybridized wheat. I refer to this as "cultural erosion." You no longer need farmers to share that knowledge that they have been carrying on from generation to generation. It becomes a kind of cookie-cutter process. And that, to me, strips away the art of what this is. Somebody is growing our food. Those hands are making what will go into our bodies and nourish us. And those hands are incredibly important.”

The cacao plant—the source of chocolate—is a species with an incredible amount of biodiversity. The seeds of the plant grow inside large fleshy tropical fruits and are roasted for use in choclate making. Each region imparts its own unique flavor characteristics. Photo courtesy Simran Sethi

The cacao plant—the source of chocolate—is a species with an incredible amount of biodiversity. The seeds of the plant grow inside large fleshy tropical fruits and are roasted for use in chocolate making. Each region imparts its own unique flavor characteristics. Photo courtesy Simran Sethi

On the cultural significance of staple foods like wheat

“I went back to India to the state of Punjab, where my ancestors are from. It’s the ‘Wheat State’ of India. Going to the Golden Temple, the most sacred site for the Sikh religion in the world, [I got to see] how the sacred pudding, which is made of wheat, is made. You know, my whole life I had been going to these temples with my grandmother and I was just like, Woo! Sacred Dessert! But I wasn’t thinking this was a blessing. This sweet pudding is a blessed thing. And the blessing isn’t in the fact that the religious person sanctified it. I learned at the Golden Temple the blessing happens when we share it. That’s when it becomes holy. Half of it is given to you. Half of it is kept back for the temple. And that just blew me away. Wheat is a staple and symbol of sanctity throughout all faiths. And that was such a powerful experience. And then to also go to Asheville, North Carolina and talk to bakers there and again realize that this is humble. You know, we’re not talking about some fancy food being the staple of nutrition or the staple of spirit. It’s wheat. It’s the beginning. It’s the thing that we start with.”

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Simran Sethi is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. Click here to read an excerpt from the book.