Why Diversity on the Dinner Plate Is Becoming an Endangered Species
Americans once grew and ate 15,000 varieties of apple, each different in name, taste and texture. What's left today are about 10 percent of those varieties, the rest consigned to a fate people seldom associate with food.
"The idea of endangered species is pretty well established; people understand that a particular salamander might be endangered," said Jenny Trotter, who heads the biodiversity programs at Slow Food USA. But endangered apples -- that's an idea few eaters recognize even as biologists sound a growing alarm about the rapid loss of genetic biodiversity in the global food supply.
Seventy-five percent of the world's food now comes from seven crops: wheat, rice, corn, potato, barley, cassava and sorghum. And it increasingly comes from narrow strains of those crops selected for efficiency in producing the most food on the smallest patch of land in the least amount of time.
Fine diners have come to recognize an alternative in "heirloom" tomatoes, a term denoting generations of conservation by farmers who can trace the origin of a unique seed's selected breeding by as much as centuries.
The same concept, though rarely appearing on farms -- and even more rarely marketed on menus -- applies to grains and lettuces and pears. Even cows. But today, 99 percent of turkeys eaten in America come from a single breed, the Broad-Breasted White. More than 80 percent of dairy cows are Holsteins and 75 percent of pigs come from just three breeds.
In the winnowing of efficiency, "heirloom" and "heritage" landraces are disappearing, taking with them their diverse genes and, scientists argue, man's best chances for survival. Please recall, they all suggest, the Irish potato famine. More recent epidemics have threatened entire regional industries as well as grocery-store produce: the billion-dollar 1970 corn blight, the 1984 Florida citrus canker, and the wheat stem rust, which may yet do its worst damage.
Blights, viruses and insects evolve over time to counter agricultural repellants, meaning crops will have to evolve over time, too. And today, as climate change promises to target agriculture, more than ever farmers may need to rely on the untapped genes of crops that grow on little water or in high heat, or livestock that can forage on grass should the price of the corn we feed them go up from competition with biofuels.
We've also come to rely on some food sources -- that Broad-Breasted White turkey, for example -- that can no longer naturally reproduce. Which seems biologically troubling, right?
"It's a question that needs to be asked, and if our entire food system is based on that resource, that becomes a question we can no longer ask," said Phil Sponenberg, a professor of pathology and genetics at Virginia Tech and an adviser to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. "For turkey production, if all we had were artificially inseminated industrial turkeys, and all of a sudden, if we want to say, 'Is this how we should be raising turkeys?' it becomes increasingly difficult to ask that question."
Alternative ways of raising turkeys, in other words, would no longer be an option.
"I just like the idea of all the options being on the table," Sponenberg said.
His suggestion for keeping them there is laughably simple.
"We have to eat them to save them,'" said Jennifer Kendall, the ALBC's manager of marketing and communications.
In an era when many problems -- deforestation, climate change, water shortages -- have been caused by human over-consumption, here is a problem of under-consumption. Biodiversity is disappearing precisely because people no longer consume it, and if we would just eat endangered crops and livestock now, restoring their role in the food supply, we could save them from extinction.
Endangered heritage breeds have one saving grace: They're generally tasty. Because of this, an odd collection of interest groups -- U.N. bureaucrats, conservation scientists, small farmers and foodies -- have coalesced around the eat-'em-to-save-'em strategy.
Slow Food USA works alongside the ALBC, the Seed Savers Exchange and the nonprofit Chefs Collaborative, all of which also fall under the "Restoring America's Food Traditions" alliance founded by Arizona professor Gary Nabhan.
RAFT, with the lead of Chefs Collaborative, this spring launched a pilot program in New England connecting small farms with local restaurants for the purpose of growing, serving and promoting 16 regionally specific heritage breeds of vegetable in danger of disappearing. Among the varieties: Boothby's blond cucumber, early blood-rooted turnip beet, Jimmy Nardello's sweet Italian frying pepper and the Siberian sweet watermelon.
Rich Garcia, the executive chef at Tastings Wine Bar and Bistro in Foxboro, Mass., is already plating the speckled lettuce, a hearty leaf similar to romaine that has natural brown spots a non-foodie might mistake for bad news. Garcia knows all of the farmers and fishermen his food comes from in an effort to remove the restaurant from the industrial-scale production and distribution system that has elbowed much biodiversity out of the food supply.
"I can trace my meat from my restaurant all the way back to where it was raised, what it was fed, how long it was with its mother," he said. "It gets kind of crazy some of the information you can get."
The restaurant's servers are prepared to pass that information on to diners, explaining why they can't have an out-of-season tomato on their burger in April, or why the pairing in-season is labeled on the menu as a "trophy tomato." Identify a heritage breed by name, Garcia says, and you pique diners' curiosity. Servers then have an in to tell the "story" of a food, a buzzword for advocates from the ALBC to Chefs Collaborative. The story of the speckled lettuce is one of a plant dating to the 1660s in Holland and grown locally in New England for 200 years.
The premise of the project is that chefs man the front lines of food trends, and that they're essential to bridge the gap between speckled lettuces and a public that expects produce to look uniform and familiar. Heritage breeds are often, well, the funny-looking ones.
"We have to look back at the heirloom tomato as America's introduction to this concept, the original posterboy for biodiversity," said Evan Mallett, another chef participating in the Grow-Out at his restaurant, Black Trumpet Bistro, in Portsmouth, N.H. "I don't know if it's because I myself look physically imperfect, but I think I want everyone to look at a tomato that's deformed and see that it's more real. Nothing's been done to alter the tomato, and because of that, the tomato tastes like a pure tomato."
The pilot program addresses one of the main challenges around reviving near-extinct strands of edible biodiversity: Farmers need demand to raise these breeds, but the supply can't be marketed until the breed gets off the cusp of extinction. The Grow-Out controls for both supply and demand, with farmers agreeing to grow the vegetables for chefs who have ahead of time promised to buy them. The only trick was choosing near-endangered seeds, and not the last supply of an extinct breed.
Naming the Niche Players
American consumers have been struck over the last decade by waves of food consciousness. First, it was "eat organically," and then "eat locally." The ALBC hopes the next frontier will be eating biodiversity, an idea that may have more meaning for the sustainability of the planet (and its people) than organics.
When it reaches the supermarket, the trend probably won't be labeled as "biodiverse," but with "heritage" and "heirloom" stamps -- or, better yet, by the names of individual breeds. Kendall wants you to walk into the grocery store and request not just a pork chop, but a Red Wattle pork chop. The idea is not so far-fetched in Europe (or even in American cheese isles), where consumers identify regionally specific brands like Roquefort cheese or Bordeaux wine, or in Italy, where the Slow Food movement began.
The ALBC this April released a definition for "heritage" chickens, following a 2005 effort with turkeys. The conservancy can't police whether farmers use the name faithfully, but it has begun the many-year process of introducing the label into the USDA's stable of adjectives like "grass-fed."
The turkey definition was easy, Kendall said: "Pretty much anything that was naturally mating was considered heritage."
The goal isn't to replace all the industrial turkeys that don't mate naturally. The ALBC doesn't think heritage breeds will feed the world; they are by definition not conducive to producing on a mass scale. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, though, has closely tied biodiversity to the problem of feeding the world's burgeoning population. The loss of biodiversity, it says, threatens world food security as populations lose access to crops and animals adapted to specific corners of the globe.
In the U.S., what biodiversity advocates hope to create is a bigger niche where currently a very small one exists.
"They're going to be like how cranberries and maple syrup are in the American diet," Nabhan said. "We don't have them every day, but they become specially featured things we're willing to pay more for because they reinforce our heritage.
"The thing we forget," he added, "is that niche markets add up."
On the level of genetic diversity, Sponenberg said the picture looks vastly different when three breeds represent 60 percent of an animal population compared with 95 percent. Biodiversity just needs a piece of the pie, he said, so we still have those genetic resources if we ever need them.
The American Farm Bureau, which represents the broader agriculture industry that is trying to feed the country, is OK with that, said Russell Williams, the Farm Bureau's director of regulatory relations.
"We're 100 percent for market-driven labeling," he said. "If there is a market for a heritage hamburger, or heritage steak, more power to them."
But the Farm Bureau opposes U.S. ratification of the 15-year-old U.N. Convention on Biodiversity, which Williams fears would lead to a system in America where farmers growing heritage breeds receive subsidies at the expense of those who don't.
The Farm Bureau doesn't keep statistics on what breeds its growers use, considering the question an intrusion into farmers' competitive business decisions. And so biodiversity -- or the lack thereof -- is a non-issue.
"If that variety satisfies the market," Williams said of the breeds currently in use, "I would be hard-pressed to say we have to have a 50 percent mix of other varieties consumers aren't going to buy. What are farmers going to do if nobody buys them?"
Others argue existing agricultural subsidies have helped contribute to the loss of biodiversity in the first place, skewing a market where entire regions of the country grow only a single genetically modified corn crop.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests that major policy shifts on subsidies and research funding are as important as shifting consumer consciousness. Growing food is unlike making cars or telephones because of the evolving element of biology. But, Gurian-Sherman said, America treats the industries the same, focusing on the limited goal of maximizing production at the expense of other factors like biodiversity.
"If we screw up with agriculture, with the growing world population and climate change, the consequences are not going to be the failure of a car company, whereby another car company can easily fill in for them," he said. "Eventually, the consequences are starvation. People need to understand the production of food is fundamentally different than the production of cars. I don't think as a society we've really grasped that."