At first glance, the foods we eat appear more numerous and diverse than ever before. In many cities, cuisines from all six inhabited continents can be found within a radius of a single mile. But this fact obscures an important truth: globalization has homogenized what we eat, and done so ruthlessly. The numbers are stark: of the roughly six thousand different plants once consumed by human beings, only nine remain major staples today. Just three of these—rice, wheat, and corn—now provide fifty percent of all our calories. Dig deeper and the trends are more worrisome still: a single species of wheat accounts for ninety-five percent of global output. Ninety-five percent of milk consumed around the world comes from a single breed of cow, and half of all cheese is made with bacteria from a single company.
This consolidation has steep costs: a higher incidence of heart disease and diabetes; a lack of redundancy in the face of climate change, pests, and parasites; and the loss not only of traditional foodways, but of flavors, smells, and textures that may never be experienced again. If it strikes you that everything is starting to taste the same, you’re by no means alone.
In Eating to Extinction, the distinguished BBC food journalist Dan Saladino travels the world to experience and document our most at-risk foods before it’s too late. He tells the fascinating stories of the people who continue to cultivate, forage, hunt, cook, and consume what the rest of us have forgotten. Take honey—not the familiar product sold in plastic bottles, but the wild honey gathered by the Hadza people of East Africa, whose diet consists of eight hundred different plants and animals and who communicate with birds in order to locate beehives. Or take murnong—once the staple food of Aboriginal Australians, this small yam with the sweet taste of coconut is undergoing a revival after being driven nearly to extinction. From an Indigenous American chef refining precolonial recipes to farmers tending Geechee red peas on the Sea Islands of Georgia, the individuals profiled in Eating to Extinction offer an essential guide to the must-taste foods that have endured in the face of rampant sameness and standardization, and a roadmap to a diet that is healthier, more resilient, and, above all, richer in flavor and meaning.