Your morning coffee is in a perilous state. There are just two species of coffee plants on which the entire multibillion-dollar industry is based: One of them is considered poor-tasting, and the other, which you’re likely familiar with, is threatened by climate change and a deadly fungal disease.
Thankfully there’s another kind of coffee out there, known as stenophylla. It has a higher heat tolerance, greater resistance to certain fungal pathogens, and it tastes great. There’s just one problem: It’s incredibly rare, and until recently, scientists believed it was extinct.
Stenophylla is just one of dozens of important foods that are threatened with extinction, according to Dan Saladino, a BBC journalist and author of the new book Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them. While grocery stores may seem as abundant as ever, Saladino argues that the diversity of food is actually in decline. Of the hundreds of thousands of wheat varieties that farmers once cultivated, for example, only a handful are now farmed on a large scale, he told Vox.
A new book by food journalist and longtime BBC reporter Dan Saladino explores some of the world’s rarest foods and why we need them. Thomas Colligan
As we grow and harvest fewer varieties of plants and animals, the foods you can buy in the grocery store may become less nutritious and flavorful, and — as the current state of coffee demonstrates — the global food system could become less resilient. That’s why it’s so crucial to lift up communities that are protecting foods from disappearing, Saladino told Vox in an interview about his new book.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Grocery stores may be stocked, but the variety of food is in decline Benji Jones
You write that a lot of foods, such as varieties of coffee and wheat, are going extinct. Yet when I walk into the grocery store it seems like there’s more variety than ever. I just tried cotton candy-flavored grapes, for example.
Whether it’s cotton candy grapes or certain varieties of avocado, there’s a degree of uniformity. And while you’ll see this abundance — consider bread, and the wheat it’s made of — it’s extremely narrow in terms of its genetics.
In this amazing place in the Arctic called Svalbard, there’s a seed vault buried deep under the ice, down a tunnel, in which there are more than 200,000 different unique samples of wheat. That’s the kind of diversity that’s hidden from us. A farmer today in the UK might get a recommended list of wheat varieties to grow — dictated largely by the food industry and millers and bakers — of fewer than 10 kinds.
Dan Saladino. Artur Tixiliski
You can take all of the world’s staple crops, including maize [also known as corn] and rice, and you’ll see the same thing.