A whole world of food is vanishing. Dan Saladino explains why that matters.

“Eating to Extinction” warns of the limits of modern agriculture when it comes to building a healthy relationship with food – and the natural world. 

"Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them" by Dan Saladino, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp.

It’s hard not to be dazzled by the sheer abundance and variety of foods available in the supermarket. But BBC food journalist Dan Saladino is far more impressed by what is not there. In his book, “Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them,” Saladino explains that many of the fruits, vegetables, cereals, and meats that sustained our ancestors are being lost. Countless varieties have already gone extinct, abandoned by farmers in favor of more productive strains. 

At a time when many of us are staying closer to home, it is exhilarating to join the author on a pilgrimage to some of the last strongholds of traditional food culture. The book is an immensely readable compendium of food history, cultural lore, agricultural science, and travelogue. There are new flavors to imagine and places to visit on every page.

The book is also inevitably a eulogy for a vanishing world.

In a poignant chapter, we meet the Hadza of Tanzania, among the last remaining hunter-gatherers, who feasted on over 800 plant and animal species. Until recently, hunger, along with many diseases common in the West, were virtually unknown in the tribe. Saladino describes how they hunt with poisoned arrows, forage for edible plants, and follow “honeyguides,” birds who lead them to hives in exchange for leftover honey. 

They regard it as a wonderful life, and so does Saladino. “The Hadza remind us that there are many ways to live and be in the world.” 

Modern agriculture, by contrast, separates us from the world and from the foods that we eat, the author argues. It creates a calorie-rich but nutrition-poor diet that feeds the body but starves the soul. 

Saladino says that we have become the victims of our own success. The so-called Green Revolution of the mid-20th century created, through science, a handful of high-yield crops that could withstand the rigors of factory farming and be shipped distances without spoiling. Of the thousands of wild and domesticated plants that were once eaten by humans, only nine are now staples. And three of them – wheat, corn, and rice – make up half the calories that we consume. 

It might seem ungrateful to question modern agricultural practices that have saved millions of people from starvation. Saladino does not deny the benefits of modern farming, but he warns that industrial agriculture has brought us to the brink of ecological collapse. Vast monocultures are draining underground aquifers, polluting waterways with agricultural chemicals, and robbing the world’s soils of minerals and helpful microorganisms. 

“We cannot afford to carry on growing crops and producing food in ways that are so violently in conflict with nature,” Saladino insists. He never spells out what exactly a more nature-friendly agricultural system would look like, still less how we can produce enough food for the billions of additional humans who are expected to inhabit the earth in coming decades. But he paints a sobering picture of the vulnerabilities of the current system.

One problem, we’re told, is that our food supply is more threatened than ever by crop disease. Take the banana. There is one main commercial variety, the thick skinned and slow-ripening Cavendish banana. In recent years it has been facing a fungus against which it has no natural resistance.

Saladino introduces us to Andean peoples who once grew over 4,000 varieties of potatoes, but today favor the standard yellow frying potato which is popular in the region’s cities. And we learn of Mexican corn varieties that are being replaced by cheaply grown, high-starch corn shipped in from the U.S. Midwest. 

That’s the bad news. The good news is that people are resisting these homogenizing trends. In Venezuela, a restaurant owner is reintroducing the traditional criollo cocoa bean, a lucrative export crop. Ancient cheesemaking techniques are making a comeback in Albania. In China, a farmer has rescued several ancient types of rice that do not need artificial pesticides. 

Saladino is not suggesting that we should go back to the diets of the past. But he does say we can learn from our forebears that food is more than just a commodity. It is ultimately a connection to the earth. “Eating to Extinction” is a plea to become more mindful of this inestimable gift.

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