EXPLORE THE BOOK
Click on a location to find short extracts from the book and photographs Dan took on his research travels.
Then scroll down to find 15 amazing facts he discovered on his journey!
15 AMAZING FACTS
For most of human history, our food was extraordinarily diverse
The world’s largest seed vault is on the Arctic island of Svalbard, deemed to be the most secure place on the planet for storing more than one million seeds, varieties of more than 1,000 different crops. The collection is a living record of thousands of years of farming history and the diversity we have lost and are losing from our fields and our diets. It includes 170,000 individual samples of rice, 39,000 samples of maize, 21,000 samples of potato and 35,000 samples of millet – each potentially with unique flavours and other valuable properties, including disease or drought resistance, we can’t afford to lose.
The food skills that make us human are being lost
The Hadza have lived in the Great Rift Valley, East Africa for at least 40,000 years. Fewer than 300 still live as hunter-gatherers, providing the closest living link we have to the diets of our ancestors. Their favourite food is honey and to find it they communicate with a bird, the honeyguide. The birds recognise the sounds of the Hadza’s whistles and lead the humans to trees containing bees’ nests. The Hadza smoke the bees out and take the honey and in return, the birds get to eat the wax without being stung to death. It’s the most complex and productive partnership between two different species and is thought to reach back a million years or more to our ancestors’ first use of fire. Wild honey is one of the foods that fuelled human evolution. It’s no coincidence the human-bird partnership is being lost as sugar and sweet fizzy drinks arrive in Hadzaland.
Plants once dismissed as weeds are now understood to be a precious food resource
In the south of England, near Gatwick Airport, is another seed vault, housed underground inside a building so secure it’s been made to withstand explosions, radiation and flooding. This is home to seeds of the wild relatives of the foods we eat. Explorers from more than a hundred countries are busy searching in jungles, across savannah and within forests for endangered ‘crop wild relatives’, sending seed samples to be stored at the Millennium Seed Bank. Until recently, these wild plants were regarded mostly as weeds; now we realise we need them to breed the crops of the future as they could contain the genetic tool-kits required to protect against disease and climate change. A sign outside the vault, which contains 2.4 million seeds, says, ‘You are standing in the most biodiverse place on the planet’.
Cheese is the ultimate expression of place
Humans have been making cheese for at least 7,000 years and once there were as many different cheeses as there were places. Cheese, in whatever form it has taken, has traditionally captured the essence of an environment: the grass, the microbes (bacteria and fungi), the local breeds of animal and their milk. But cheese is becoming more and more uniform and its ancient link with the land is being broken. Much of the cheese we eat today, wherever we are in the world, is made from milk processed by a small number of companies, sourced from the same breed of cattle, using bacteria and enzymes created in a handful of labs. We are at risk of losing the diversity created by thousands of years of cheese-making.
In a place of conflict and turmoil chocolate provides a source of hope
In my search for endangered foods around the world, I travelled to Venezuela, a country that was in crisis; the economy had collapsed, a crime-wave was underway, and people were going hungry. In the capital Caracas I met former chef Maria Fernanda di Giacobbe who was teaching people to survive difficult times by making chocolate. Her idea was to restore Venezuela’s rare and prized cacao, criollo, once used to make the most revered chocolate in the world, drunk by Aztecs in Mexico and later by Europeans (including Pepys in 17th century London). Criollo farming fell into decline when Venezuela’s rush for oil took off and the prestigious seeds became endangered. Now di Giacobbe is helping farmers grow criollo and teaching Venezuelans how to turn criollo beans into chocolate, so creating jobs, hope for the future and some of the best bars of chocolate in the world.
Increasingly, we're all eating exactly the same foods
Of the 6,000 plant species humans have eaten over time, the world now mostly grows and consumes just nine, of which just three – rice, wheat and maize – provide 50 per cent of all calories. Add potato, barley, palm oil, soy and sugar (beet and cane) and you have 75 per cent of all the calories that fuel our species. The diversity within these crops is also disappearing as we rely on a smaller and smaller number of high yielding varieties.
Our survival depends on knowing where our food comes from
Knowing where a food plant originated can lead us to where the greatest genetic diversity of that crop exists. Genetic diversity, we’re realising, is the secret to future food security and resilience, and preserving it is important for our survival. At the International Potato Center in Lima, for instance, 4,600 different Andean tubers are being safeguarded. This rich diversity in the potato’s ‘centre of origin’ is where we have the greatest chance of finding the genetic traits needed in future to protect against climate change and disease (such as the blight that caused the Irish potato famine). Even more potato diversity exists in the thousands of remote communities across the Andes in Peru and Bolivia where landrace (locally adapted) varieties are still being grown and are continuing to adapt.
We are at risk of losing foods before we understand how important they are
In Oaxaca, southern Mexico, growing in a high-altitude village called Totontepec, is one of the world’s strangest and most mysterious food crops. This rare type of maize, called Oloton, has roots above ground as well as below and oozes a gooey microbial mucus. Few other crops grow in the mountainous village and the Mixe people who tend them have no access to fertiliser, but this corn seems to flourish. In 2018, scientists discovered that the mysterious mucus is the plant’s way of feeding itself – it contains microbes that pull nitrogen directly from the surrounding air. In short, it’s a self-feeding plant. In a world awash with artificial fertilisers (which emit greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change), this crop, nurtured by indigenous people over thousands of years, could be an important part of all of our food futures.
It is possible to drink diversity... but it's getting harder and harder to do
More than 1,500 grape varieties have been recorded, many of which are indigenous, ancient and highly adapted to their local environments. But it’s estimated that about 80 per cent of all vineyards now grow just ten or so ‘international’ varieties – the likes of Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah, which started to dominate winemaking in the 1960s. In Georgia, in the Caucuses, thought to be the birthplace of wine, farmers are working to restore the 500 indigenous grape varieties that were almost lost during the Soviet era when the regime dictated only five grape varieties could be grown. There, the qvervi, a large clay vessel which is buried underground (the predecessor of the barrel) is still used to ferment grapes and make wine the original way.
We can save the diversity disappearing from our oceans
Sailors used to provide tales of seas so full of fish it was hard to navigate boats through the shoals. In the last century, we’ve emptied the oceans of such abundance. But we now have the know-how to help replenish the seas – by creating Marine Protection Areas. The success of these ocean sanctuaries has been repeated again and again across the globe, including in Cabo Pulmo on the west coast of Mexico, which had been all but emptied of fish during the 1980s and was revived after local fishing communities decided to stop fishing and create a protected zone. Within a decade, the biomass of fish increased by nearly 500 per cent, close to what it would have been like if it had never been fished in the first place.
Food power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands
The source of much of the world’s food – seeds – is mostly in the control of just four corporations; half of all the world’s cheeses are produced with bacteria or enzymes manufactured by a single company; one in four beers drunk around the world is the product of one brewer; most global pork production is based around the genetics of a single breed of pig; and just two companies control the genetics of most of the world’s commercial chickens.
The 'centres of origin' of our food are at risk - and that matters to us all
Eat an apple and wherever you are in the world, whatever its shape, size, colour or taste, its origin can be traced back to the Tian Shan, the snow-tipped ‘heavenly mountains’ that separate China and Central Asia. The wild trees that cover its slopes here are a living gene bank. As the birthplace of the apple, the biodiverse Tian Shan holds the past, present and future of one of our most popular fruits. But vast sections of the wild forest have disappeared (cleared for industry, housing and agriculture). With the loss of each wild apple tree, the fruit’s living gene bank is being depleted.
Losing diversity risks unleashing more zoonotic diseases
We’re not just relying on a few varieties of a small number of plants for our food, we’re also banking on just a few breeds for most of our meat. The 80 billion animals slaughtered each year are increasingly from a small selection of genetically uniform, faster growing and bigger animals; just three breeding lines dominate global poultry production; and most pork is based around the genetics of a single pig, the Large White. In dairy, more than 95 per cent of America’s dairy herd is based around one breed of ‘super cow’, the Holstein (and most of these animals can be linked back to a handful of males). Creating larger and larger industrial units filled with thousands of genetically identical animals is a perfect environment for zoonotic diseases to evolve and spread.
The future of coffee depends on exploring diversity
Most of the coffee we drink today comes from a handful of plants shipped out of Yemen in the 17th century. Coffea arabica (which grew and still grows wild in Ethiopia) was the first coffee to be cultivated and is now the most widely grown and consumed. But we’re at risk of losing it. Because of its history and narrow genetic base, a cultivated Arabica plant today has a fraction of the gene variation of one found in the wild. In the face of climate change, water shortages and a disease that’s wiping out coffee crops across the world, Arabica might not have a big enough toolkit to adapt fast enough, or even at all. Luckily, other species of coffee do exist (so far, 120 have been discovered and named), but we are in a race against time to find them before they go extinct. One is stenophylla, an endangered coffee which used to grow widely in Sierra Leone, with a flavour said to be as good if not better than Arabica.
Change must happen... and it can happen
Every minute of every day, a million dollars is spent on agricultural subsidies around the world, whether that’s for planting more soy in the Cerrado, more monocultures of maize in North America, fields of homogeneous wheat in Europe, or sending out more boats to already overfished waters. This is public money, our money, and it is supporting a system that isn’t resilient, healthy or sustainable. The world’s current food system is contributing to climate change, deforestation and waste. A more diverse food system could help solve many of the problems we face. There are inspirational people around the world (farmers, chefs, cheese- and wine-makers, seed savers) already fighting for change, preserving their foods, their cooking cultures and protecting diversity for us all. If we all start to learn about the foods being lost and add greater diversity to our food choices we too can start to make changes to the food system. It’s not about recapturing the past but about shaping a better future.