Although there may be a seemingly vast selection of produce in grocery stores, the decline of food diversity is very real and close. Today, four corporations are in control of the entire global food supply: 50% of the world’s seeds come from Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina, and Limagrain. Coffee beans, avocado plants, and cocoa crops are in danger of dying out and 40% of the world's plants are on the brink of disappearance. Food journalist Dan Saladino explores the slow food industry and the dangers of the growing lack of food diversity in his new book, Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them.

Despite the many varieties of foods once cultivated by humans, only a limited number of crops, like wheat and corn, are now farmed on a large scale, thanks to a global agriculture system that prioritizes monoculture, or the practice of only growing one crop. The same applies for the meat industry, with beef at the helm. As a result, the stewardship of increasingly rare plants and animals — such as bison, or even coffee beans — are left to a small few. Without collective action, the world’s abundance will continue to shrink at a great cost, Saladino writes.

The significance of food diversity reaches not only environmental, but socio-cultural and economic impacts, as well. According to Saladino, food diversity protects us. As climate change impacts threaten to expose us to extreme temperature changes and engender more zoonotic disease outbreaks, plants and animals are left vulnerable, too. A global community that depends on a select few foods is at a greater risk of agricultural pests, as well.

Photo courtesy of Dan Saladino.

Beyond protection, food diversity also plays a major role in preserving culture and people’s connections to food. Indigenous communities around the world have cultural relationships with plants and animals that are in danger of extinction. Through the majority of human evolution, people’s diets have been varied. The food people consume and produce depended not only on their environment, but cultural needs as well. It is only in the last 150 years that the human diet has experience massive change in the variety of food being consumed, amplified by the contribution of large corporations taking capital.

“I think this idea that diversity matters is one thing that we should all know,” Saladino said. “And that step one is knowing the story, knowing the origins of our food and how diverse the foods were around the world and what has led to this genetic kind of uniformity to take hold.”

We spoke with Saladino about celebrating farmers and communities who are protecting food for this generation, and how to work alongside them.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve entered many new places while writing this book — some perhaps more welcoming than others. Was there ever difficulty when entering these spaces?

The one that comes to mind as quite a difficult space was Venezuela. When I visited, there was a lot of tension. Even the people I traveled with who were Venezuelans were quite nervous about the situation and I describe in the book going through the military roadblocks, which were really intimidating. There was a serious food shortage underway and I was going into supermarkets and seeing these empty shelves. That was quite a stressful place to be, but it felt important to be there to try and capture the food story that was unfolding. I also wanted to highlight the mission of Maria Fernanda Di Giaccobe who is trying to rescue Venezuela's chocolate history. It was so important and brave because I was meeting farmers who were having their crops stolen and their equipment taken away.

Culture, especially food culture, is perhaps one of the core values of human existence. Is there still room for culture preservation through food in this climate?

Oh, yes, I could have written a book that was purely looking at crop genetics and saying that we need diversity because of resilience in the food system. But I also wanted to make it very clear that now I'm coming at it as a journalist and not a botanist or a scientist. That gave me the freedom to take a more holistic view of food and farming.

I wanted to make a case of identity and culture being important as well. Because if we have this wave of homogeneity that's spreading around the world, if we as a world end up consuming the same products in the same media, what would that mean to be a human being? Because our story is one of a species that migrated around the world over thousands, if not millions of years. We have, in our food and in our culture, reflected those specific locations and the way the environments shape culture.

Photo courtesy of Dan Saladino.

It's part of the tragedy that I explore in the book of the disappearance of Indigenous food cultures over this enduring history, or even going back to the [Venezuelan] chocolate story — the pride people have in the food that has shaped them and their communities. A lot of the people in the book who are motivated to save endangered foods, they do that because they see it as part of their inheritance and part of their identity.

You mention the remnants of colonialism often throughout your book. Do you think there will come a time where decolonization in the food supply industry is possible? Should this be a priority?

We are now living in a period when this is now far more of an issue. People care about the impacts of colonization around the world, and obviously that's in part one of “Wild Indigenous Foods.” That's a really big theme. Maybe a couple of decades ago, most people would not have been sensitive to these more cultural issues of identity around food and farming when it comes to the impact.

I think of the story of Karlos Baca. He explicitly is saying he wants to decolonize Native American food systems wherever you are in it ‚— whether it's in his case, South Western Colorado, or of peoples further north. There is a sense of wanting to and being able to reclaim that food identity and that food culture. He was a chef for many, many years and said that he worked in countless restaurants where he was cooking sushi and Italian food, but he was never, in his words, in a position to cook his own food or the food of his people. That's changing, and I think people's identities are being expressed through food now and their cultures are being reclaimed through food.

Your book’s main focus is the importance of food diversification. And ethical food sourcing is so prevalent in many food-related discussions. So, does ethical eating/food sourcing truly exist?

I try to weave in all aspects of ethical eating in the book, and I think is probably most obvious as a theme in the meat section of the book. All of the animal stories in the book in that meat section act as reminders of a different kind of relationship between humans and animals.

What really stood out for me was this effort to breed animals increasingly for meat and this feeling that we stepped over a line. That we deploy science and technology in such a way that we completely denatured these animals in a way.

But I think a more collaborative and harmonious relationship between humans and animals is necessary. Humans depended so much on the animals that they were so highly valued because the lives of the humans depended on the welfare, the well-being, and the survival of the animals. Humans would not have been able to settle in quite harsh conditions in mountainous areas, if they didn't have cattle and sheep capable of converting the pasture into milk and cheese. That, to me, is ethical eating, in which the animals are in a more equal relationship with humans and part of a wider farming and food system.

Last question, what are you hoping for people to take away from this book?

In a sense, the reason why I wanted to write the book is because the first thing we all need is to know the story. We need to know and understand what we mean by diversity.

We think about the price of food. We think about, “Is it good for us or bad for us?” “What does it taste like?” But I think this idea that diversity matters is one thing that we should all know, and that's step one is knowing the story, knowing the origins of our food and how diverse the foods were around the world and what has led to this genetic kind of uniformity to take hold.

I hope for people to be inspired too. To investigate what diversity means to them and where they live. And then perhaps make a connection with the people out there who are making that diversity possible and become a customer or in the words of slow food, a co-producer of those foods. As a consumer as well.

Participate by knowing who's out there and, if you're lucky enough, who's in your community making cheese or who's farming and trying to favor a breed of animal, for example. There's a lot we can do as individuals, but even more we can do as members of the community.