Volume 28 Issue 1, Winter 2023
Review by Steve Allen
The story, sadly, is always the same.
Over hundreds, or even thousands, of years, a varietal of a common crop called a landrace* evolves by a combination of natural selection and selective breeding by regional farmers. It meets perfectly the local growing conditions — soil, climate, pests, etc. — and becomes embedded in local diets and culture. Then, in the second half of the 20th century comes the “Green Revolution,” and with it the landrace is forced off the land, pushed out of the marketplace, and driven to near extinction.
Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino is the story of these landrace varietals: how they developed, why they are important to local cultures around the world, and why the genetic diversity they provide is important to us all. Saladino travels to 30 countries on six continents, seeking out the determined growers trying to keep alive their landraces and the local cultures that have grown with them.
As the world’s population grew, the need for increased productivity grew with it. Crop scientists developed new varietals that produced higher yields but sacrificed genetic diversity. Crops became increasingly hybridized, often resulting in so-called F1 hybrids that produce extraordinary yields but require enormous amounts of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. These “improved” varietals are also incapable of reproduction on their own, so farmers must purchase seed from large corporations every year.
Little by little, farmers switched from the traditional landrace to the new hybrids, either by economic necessity or political coercion, and the landrace became extinct or nearly so. In some cases, the landrace survives only as a handful of seeds in a strategic seed bank somewhere in the world.**
The success of the Green Revolution is spectacular and, at the same time, concerning. In the 50 years between 1970 and 2020, the world’s population doubled while grain production tripled. At the same time, the increasing lack of diversity in our diets is shocking. Fifty percent of all calories consumed by humans on the planet derive from just three grains: wheat, rice, and corn. Potatoes, barley, soy, and sugar account for another 25%.
The perceived problem with landraces is that the large international food conglomerates don’t want them. These large producers need vast amounts of an ingredient like wheat flour that is always the same in terms of flavor and moisture content so that they can consistently produce an identically tasting product every time. They do not want idiosyncratic products that have inconsistent, different, or stronger flavors because every individual plant pulls different combinations of trace minerals from the ground. Thus, the only market for landrace grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products is the local one, and producing them excludes local growers from more lucrative international markets.
Eating to Extinction is several books at once: a travelogue to rural places around the world, a history of agriculture, and a clarion call about the need to save the world’s rarest and most endangered foods. It is a delicious yet disturbing story.
*First coined about 100 years ago, the word “landrace” is from the German “landrasse” for country-breed.
**Seed banks are underground vaults around the world that store hundreds of thousands of samples of plant seeds in deep-freezes. While they are a vital resource, they can also become the victims of local and international political upheaval. The principal seed bank in the Middle East was originally located in Iran, then moved to Syria, and recently to Lebanon.