I began writing about food in the late 1990s, just when lawmakers were debating the new federal organic standards. As each new issue popped up for debate (organic pesticides?), my editors expected me to plumb it for wisdom, so I became intimately familiar with many of the arcane details that make up our national agricultural policy. Then, when the standards became law in 2000, I began to encounter confused consumers asking what seemed at the time to be a simple question: “Is it worthwhile to buy and eat organic?”
Being young and foolish, I actually set out to answer this sort of question. (Spoiler alert: The answer depends on who’s asking the question.) But all that research began to make my trips to the grocery store way more complicated.
I specifically remember one day, staring at rows and rows of chocolate bars. There were dozens of choices between $1.99 and $4.99: organic, fair trade, and locally made, plus name brands from Switzerland, San Francisco, and Belgium preferred by pastry chefs I admired.
I was paralyzed.
The same thing occurred in front of the dairy and fish cases (farmed, wild, frozen?), and almost everywhere else, including the meat department. (Is lamb from New Zealand somehow better — or worse?) Grocery shopping became excruciatingly slow and intellectually agonizing.
Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. Standing in front of those chocolate bars, buying nothing, frozen in my tracks, I thought I have to — I must! — rationally choose a tiebreaker, here and now.
I’d been reading about the giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the area fed by the Mississippi River that contains so much fertilizer and pesticide runoff that it cannot sustain any life. That was my tiebreaker.
I said to myself, From this point forward, I am buying organic and from small producers who take care of their land and don’t poison the innocent fish in the Gulf.
I now move through the aisles to the checkout lane without having to worry too much about cost–benefit analyses or conflicting nutrition reports. I simply lead my life according to my values, quiet my mind, and make it home with a bag of food for dinner in a reasonable amount of time.
But after reading Simran Sethi’s fascinating new book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, I’m rethinking the notion that grocery shoppers are burdened by too many choices. In fact, industrial agricultural practices over the past half century have dramatically reduced the kinds of foods available to us, resulting in what Sethi calls “one of the most radical shifts we have ever seen in what and how we eat — and in what we’ll have the ability to eat in the future.”
Sethi cites a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reporting that 95 percent of the calories consumed worldwide come from a mere 30 species. Farmers now cultivate only about 150 of the 30,000 edible plant species. And 90 percent of the food we get from domesticated livestock comes from only 14 animals. “The loss is staggering,” Sethi writes. “Three-fourths of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species.”
This, Sethi reminds us, raises the risk that climate change, a single pest, or a rampaging plant disease could threaten our global food supply. “While these numbers are rough estimates, they speak to a startling trend: We rely on fewer species and varieties for food and drink — a treacherous way to sustain what we need in order to survive.”
By 2050, Sethi writes, our global per-capita amount of productive agricultural land will be a quarter of what it was in 1960. The only thing that can save us, she writes, is “agrobiodiversity.”
Two examples she highlights especially caught my attention. Arabica, one of the world’s most popular coffee beans, is now threatened by extinction due to climate change and deforestation in Ethiopia.
Chocolate, meanwhile, is in danger of being loved to death: Cacao plants are pollinated by an unlovely little pinhead-size fly called the chocolate midge, and as cacao growers scramble to satisfy consumer demand, they are destroying midge habitats.
Coffee and chocolate in danger? I called Sethi right up.
“When I tell people there’s a diversity crisis in agriculture, they look at me like I’m crazy,” she tells me. “‘Loss of diversity in food? Have you been to a grocery store?’ But what we really see is an illusion of diversity. For example, 90 percent of yogurt, ice cream, milk, all dairy products are from one breed of cow, the Holstein-Friesian. Recent research shows the global trend in food is toward five monoculture crops: wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and palm oil. We have choice of brand, choice of flavor — but it isn’t real choice.”
To sustain a world where chocolate and coffee aren’t endangered, we need to reevaluate our priorities at the grocery store, Sethi explains. First, look for local. That means small producers from anywhere: Buying single-source coffee sourced from a single farm in El Salvador will support a farmer treating his farmland well, just as buying a bunch of asparagus at your local farmers’ market will support a farmer who takes care of the land near you.
And try to eat something other than the big five of wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and palm oil (used in most processed foods and commercial baked goods). Teach yourself to cook barley, teff, and oats, and be open to sampling the weird vegetables that pop up each season at the farmers’ market.
“I’m heartbroken by the gravity of what’s happening in the world,” Sethi says. “I can’t believe I didn’t know about this loss of agricultural biodiversity. I mean, I was one of the people who cared. It left me humbled. The reason I wrote the book was because it is not time to give up hope. Food choices are something we make three times a day. We’ve all heard ‘Vote with your dollars,’ but I traveled six continents and discovered those votes are even more powerful than I ever knew.”
Works for me. I’m going to put Sethi’s advice about buying local and being curious at the top of my shopping list. That and maybe an organic, fair-trade chocolate bar.
Illustration by Paul Hostetler