How many different species do you think provide 95% of the world’s calories? Take a wild guess.
Simran Sethi, a journalist and educator focused on food, sustainability and social change, has the answer to this question and it might shock you. (But we’re not going to tell – you’ll have to listen to find out!) Simran is the author of the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, and recently created the podcast The Slow Melt, which explores the world through the rich, delicious—and often illuminating—lens of chocolate.
Simran found that in the journalism courses she was teaching, she began to talk more and more about social and environmental issues through food. As she sees it, “any food can be a way to see the world. There are so many stories that manifest through a substance that we already love.”
In fact, Simran embarked on a 5-year journey across 6 continents to discover the origins of our foods and why they are changing. Her findings are chronicled in her book. “I’m telling the story of the loss of agricultural biodiversity … in every component that makes food possible. So the loss of microbial diversity in the soil, the loss of diversity in the kinds of seeds that we sow, the loss of diversity in the livestock we raise, in plants, in aquatic life…”
And what’s the cost of this loss? Simran says that it “compromises not only the kinds of foods that we are eating and our health, but also the real opportunity to savor food—the element of deliciousness, as it were.”
So if you’re not keen on losing the delicious variety in our food, what can you do? Simran says, “The trend is toward such sameness that there are really small changes we can make to start to make a difference.” Even something as inconsequential as cooking with olive oil is a radical act!
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Simran Sethi
May 15, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Simran Sethi, journalist and educator focused on food, sustainability, social change, and she’s the author of the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. Welcome, Simran.
SIMRAN SETHI: Thank you, Anne.
AOC: It is such an honor to have you here with us today—very excited to talk about all these things with you. You’re covering some of my favorite subjects! And really tying them back to this idea that food is changing, and agriculture has changed, in some ways that really aren’t so great for us or our food choices. In 2015 you published the book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, and your book was named one of the best food books of 2016 by the Smithsonian. That is a huge honor!
SS: Thank you very much. I was very gratified.
AOC: So, tell us more about your journey of writing this book.
SS: So I, like you, care deeply about food and our food systems. My background was in journalism and academia, and I found, in the journalism courses I was teaching, I was increasingly talking about social and environmental issues through the lens of food. And so for me, I kind of felt like not only do I love eating, but I have this level of understanding about our food system.
I had gone to Italy, to Rome, to do research for a separate [?] fellowship and was speaking with a researcher from Bioversity International, which is an international NGO focused on looking at the loss of diversity in agriculture—which I’ll get to in a second. And the scientist is researching, looking specifically at genetically modified organisms and the moral imperatives for and against GMO adoption. And he said, “Genetically engineered foods are a big issue in your country, but what we are concerned about on a global scale is the loss of agricultural biodiversity.”
And I had heard of agricultural biodiversity through books like Gary Nabhan’s, through efforts like Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, but I always understood them as being relegated to foods that I wasn’t necessarily familiar with. Like Gary writing about a wild rice or a squash that honestly, I felt, wasn’t ever going to cross my life, so I wasn’t necessarily thinking I would miss it when it was gone. I mean, I felt great pain because I understand food is connected to culture and identity, but it didn’t feel like a personal pain. And when I was speaking to this scientist, Stefano Padulosi, he really helped me to understand that this affected all of our foods, and it typically affected it in adverse ways.
So I came back to the United States a few weeks later, contacted my book publisher, and said, “Listen, I had said I was going writing to write about X and then Y and then Z, and here we are on topic A, and I want to say I finally confirm this is it. And if you don’t want this story, I’ll just find another publisher.” And fortunately, the head of HarperOne said, “Go for it!” And so I embarked on this five-year journey across six continents to discover the deep origins of our foods and better understand why they were changing.
So I’m telling the story of the loss of agricultural biodiversity, which is the loss of diversity in every component that makes food possible. So the loss of microbial diversity in the soil, the loss of diversity in the kinds of seeds that we sow, the loss of diversity in the livestock we raise, in plants, and in aquatic life—so that of course includes fish, but everything that comes from the ocean. That slowly, seed by seed, meal by meal, we have been eroding the diversity that we have. The loss of diversity in pollinators is another great example. And this compromises not only the kinds of foods that we are eating and our health, but also the real opportunity to savor foods—the element of deliciousness, as it were.
So I tell the story through bread, wine, coffee, chocolate, and beer. So conservationists talk about three primary ways to save this diversity. It’s ex-situ conservation—ex-situ is Latin for “out of place”—so saving seeds, for example, in a seed bank. It’s in-situ conservation in the wild—so that would be preserving a rainforest, as a really great example. Or in-situ conservation on farms—so that’s saving diversity by growing diverse varieties of foods. So an heirloom tomato at a farmer’s market, I think, is a great example. But what they often overlook is the role of the eater—that we play a role in all of this too.
And so I really wanted to talk about saving this diversity through the lens of savoring. And so I break down flavor, the way our senses work, and have tasting guides for each of these foods and drinks in the book. So that’s really kind of the overview of the journey and the story.
AOC: You, know, I remember growing up and listening to this older gentlemen who was very impressed with McDonald’s because one of the things that he was impressed about is that he could go to McDonald’s in Chicago or out in California or even in another country, and know that he was going to have the same meal wherever he went. And so that kind of… You know, I think for a certain generation the feat of being able to do that was so fantastic, and it’s almost like we’ve had to say, “Wait, wait! What are the consequences of normalizing that meal? And you can have it the same in Sweden too? Well, how does that work?”
SS: Yeah, I mention in the book, I say, I think the hamburger is now, for McDonald’s, the same from Shanghai to Cheyenne. You know? And it’s really… Look, I understand the need and desire for consistency of experience, and I even describe in the book how in India—I moved from the United States to India as an adult for a couple years—and I missed those French fries. I stood in line when the first McDonald’s opened in Mumbai, in the suburb of Bandra, and waited for those fries. Like, I get it. But I think it has kind of moved to an extreme, and it’s happened in such a, over a trajectory of time and with such subtlety that I don’t think we maybe have fully realized it.
And so that’s like a muting of culture. Like all of a sudden, when foods are the same everywhere, they kind of come from nowhere. It’s like, okay, McDonald’s is an American export. But I think of things like the commoditization of coffee or wheat, and we lose that sense of place.
It’s really been recaptured with specialty coffee that people actually understand—coffee [unclear—at an origin?]. And I went to the deep birthplace of coffee, which is Ethiopia. I traveled across six continents over five years for my book, and quit my job, my tenured job, and embarked on this journey. And so to understand the history and the story of something, I really believe, helps us to appreciate it even more and to recognize that foods and drinks are passports. I mean, gosh, you know, that every morning we could go on a journey with our coffee to Costa Rica, to Panama, to Ethiopia—that it’s bringing us a small part of farmers’ lives and people’s lives in those places. And I actually think, to really deeply understand that is to feel a connection that that is one of the things we’ve lost through this idea of consistency.
AOC: Absolutely. You know, one of the things that you’ve written about is the shocking, shocking number that 95 percent of the world’s calories come from…and we’re just going to pause for a moment so that our listeners can kind of think for a moment, like what’s the number? How many species of plants do the world’s calories come from, 95 percent of the world’s calories? And then I’ll let you go ahead and answer that.
SS: Ninety-five percent of the world’s calories—and this is according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, where I spent many months doing my research—now come from 30 species. And three-fourths of the world’s food comes from just 12 plant and 5 animal species.
That kind of sounds staggering to me, but let me put it in context. We cultivate about 150, and we eat, most of our food, three-fourths of our food comes from just 12. So we start to see the kinds of missed opportunities and the diminishing of so much of the diversity that’s available to us. And I think that’s a real challenge for a number of reasons.
But I want to just say, the biggest challenge is one that I like to compare to an investment strategy, right? So if you have a little bit of money and you ask somebody, “Where should I invest it?” they wouldn’t say put it all in one basket, right? They wouldn’t say, “Just invest in five stocks and you’ll be okay.” They would say, “Diversify. That’s the best way to mitigate risk.” But here, we are literally putting all of our eggs in just a handful of baskets.
And we’re not just doing it here in the United States, I want to make clear. There was a team of researchers that analyzed—again, using FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization data—analyzing the major crops that 98 percent of the world eats. And what they learned is on a local level we see diversity, right? So you’ll see like a mango pop up in Minnesota. Like, we know that mango didn’t grow there, but there it is! That’s globalization for you, and that’s diversity in food, right? But on a global scale, the trend is toward sameness. It’s the same types and the same amounts of food. Its wheat, rice, corn, soybean, and palm oil.
And the lead researcher on the project—I was so stunned. Fairly early on in my research I asked him, what should consumers do? What can we do? And he said, you know, at this point, even just a pivot—it’s really a pivot in the grocery store. He said eating olive oil is a radical act. And I nearly fell off my chair, because I thought he was going to say something like find the esoteric squash or what-have-you, which is a little bit harder. But for him to say the trend is toward such sameness that there are really small changes we could make to start to make a difference.
And I will add, to the point of the grocery store, when you go to the store it looks like we have tons of diversity. And I went to Walmart, which is actually now one of the largest supermarkets in the United States, and I counted—I went to the dairy aisle and I started counting, right? And what looks like diversity—think about all the aisles of milks and yogurts and ice cream, so many, right? Ninety-five percent of those products come from one breed of cow.
AOC: Our listeners are definitely going to want to know that that’s the Holstein, right? I mean, that is what that cow is, right?
SS: Yes, exactly. So I think it’s important to look behind the label. It’s important to understand the true origin of the food and to really start to pay attention. You know, we see one banana on store shelves. There are thousands of bananas grown worldwide. The banana that we eat is one that is nutritionally inferior, and by taste also inferior to its predecessor. Those who were around in the 1950s might remember that banana—it was the Big Mike or Gros Michel banana that was wiped out by a disease, and it was replaced by the Cavendish. The Cavendish is now threatened by the exact same, a different strain of the same fungus that wiped out the Big Mike. So in many instances we see, as we increasingly grow these monocrops of foods in monocultures, that one pest, one disease, the variability of a changing climate, can wipe those things out. So that’s what takes us back to risk. It’s not a good way to plan for our futures if we want to enjoy food or delicious food.
AOC: It’s interesting how much comfort people have in that sameness. And I was listening to an Olympic contestant who was down in Rio, and they go down there and in the center they have food options from around the world. They could eat anything they wanted, you know—there’s foods from all the different nations that contribute and participate. And the longest line in the whole place was at McDonald’s. So there’s part of it, you talk about people having agency and what they can do to—you know, the radical act of using olive oil. But also just to train our taste buds that there’s other things that we can explore and expand our horizons a bit, right?
SS: Absolutely. I talk about in the book about how taste is something we all do and we all have. And I feel like in recent years we’ve seen a real evolution and a schism between the so-called foodies or food sophisticates and then the rest of us. And I think it’s a really unfair divide, and I think it really damages the kinds of ways we can work together to transform our food system.
The biggest challenge for me, as I realized early on in researching the book, that I had kind of given away my power to reviewers like Pete Wells and the New York Times, or to Eater reviews or Michelin stars—that I had no longer embraced my own sense of taste. And that’s something that this book really stresses we can reclaim. I firmly believe that when we understand our taste buds, our experience of flavor, and our own selves a little bit better, that we move toward things that maybe aren’t McDonald’s. They might be McDonald’s—I’m not here to stand in judgment of anybody. But what I am here to present is information, such as Americans spend less of a portion of their income on food than we did during the Great Depression; that hunger is real; but that I think the drive to the bottom, the drive to the cheapest food is also a drive to the cheapest quality. And that when we make these choices—if we have the ability to choose differently—we put into motion a system of agriculture that really hurts people.
It hurts small-holder farmers specifically. These are subsistence farmers who I have now met who are making so little money. I’ll use chocolate as an example. The majority of cocoa is grown in West Africa, about 70 percent, and the largest-producing country is Ivory Coast. A recent study shows that those farmers make $0.91 per day. That’s less than the price that we pay for a candy bar. And I think of chocolate as bringing me so much solace and joy. I write in the book, chocolate was my every birthday cake, chocolate was my wedding cake, chocolate got me through my divorce. Chocolate wrote every page of my book. It’s my constant companion. And here we are, realizing these farmers are making nothing. And then add to this the fact that in the last year the commodity price of cocoa has dropped 33 percent. It’s at ten-year lows. So people who were already at the margins are suffering even more.
And I don’t want my joy to come at the expense of someone else’s suffering. I don’t want my savoring to be full of heartache for someone else. And so, you know, I’m not rich—I’m a writer, for God’s sakes! I mean, journalism news is free now, which doesn’t make it easier for us, I’ll tell you! And so the choices I make are, as much as I can, in favor of supporting the long trajectory of people that get food to my plate. The word supply chain or value chain erases some of that. I can’t understand what a supply chain is. This is a link, this is a web made up of human beings whose hopes and dreams are bound up in our own. And I understand, not very many people are going to be able to quit their job, and maybe they shouldn’t, and do I what I did. But what I hope that I did is bring some of those farmers, some of those conservationists, some of those people to you through reading the book and through having some of the experiences that I had.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Simran Sethi, journalist, educator, and author. Today we’re talking about her book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, and about her…we’re going to get to her chocolate podcast. We’ve been talking about sustainability, social change. Simran, can you tell us about the podcast, The Slow Melt?
SS: The podcast—it’s the first podcast to really look at the continuum of chocolate and take people behind the bar to those deeper stories. And I will say it’s also transcendent of chocolate in the sense of what I’m trying to do. We launched the podcast in January; we have just two more episodes left in this first season. It’s trying to use chocolate as what I say is the thick, delicious lens through which to see the world. So we talk about conservation, we talk about deliciousness and flavor through chemistry and through actual tastings. We talk about geography, we talk about history. It’s really, for me, any food can be a way to see the world. There are so many stories that manifest through a substance that we already love, right?
You know, wheat comes from the Middle East; like this is the Fertile Crescent we’re talking about, that so many of our foods… You think about hearing about something like a drought in Ethiopia, and maybe you don’t feel any emotional connection to it. But what if I tell you that Ethiopia, for example, is the beginning, the past, present, and future of coffee. That’s where coffee was born, that’s where the coffee culture that we know of today was started. It wasn’t Viennese cafes— it was Ethiopians. It’s the only actually coffee-drinking culture in Africa. And all the diversity of the crop is held there and in South Sudan, so it’s also the future of coffee. So then all of a sudden, the people who are suffering from drought in Ethiopia are a little bit closer to us. Without them, we don’t have coffee, right?
So that’s what I’ve tried to do in the work. I went to so many different places and talked about so many different foods and drinks. But the one that really held was chocolate, because I’ve had such a long relationship with it and it’s been so intimate. So I thought it would be really interesting to try to tell these different stories through this one substance. And cocoa is grown in a thin band around the equator, so it’s grown in places ranging from Hawaii to Papua New Guinea and Vietnam, to Latin America. So it was born in South America in a bean-shaped area in the upper Amazon; I spent quite a bit of time in Ecuador studying the crop. And now the majority of it is grown in West Africa.
So there are a number of stories that can be told. And when we look at consumption, most of cocoa and chocolate is consumed in the global north. So it’s a very interesting and complicated story, and it’s one where—you know, for me, certainly when I was thinking of chocolate growing up, or as recently as six years ago, I thought, well, chocolate comes from Switzerland, right? Chocolate comes from Belgium and France?
AOC: Yeah, it’s so funny, right? I mean, that’s exactly what we think.
SS: And I couldn’t have recognized it in nature. It’s a very colorful pod—it comes in colors ranging from yellow and orange to deep purple, like these amazing purples, and light greens, and even a light tan color. The shape ranges from like an American football to something that more approximates a cantaloupe. And they look like they’re stuck to the tree; it’s like it’s quite exquisite and extraordinary. And once we got there—okay, they chop open the pod, and I’m still looking for like a brown, oozy substance. I’m like, okay, maybe it’s the leaf. Does it have a sap? Like, I don’t know. This thing I’ve been eating for four decades, I can’t find it! I can’t find it in nature! And that to me was absolutely extraordinary.
The journey of cocoa is like no other. I mean, you see grains of wheat and you kind of get it. Okay, I may not know every process but I know these amber waves of grain are going to end up in bread. You see a baby coffee plant in nature, and I can verify, even if you haven’t seen one, the seedling actually looks like a coffee bean. I mean, it’s green or a very pale color, but you kind of get it. Nowhere along the journey does cocoa become cocoa until pretty far along in the process.
I bit into the seed, I thought, “There! I’m going to taste chocolate!” Oh, no! You taste this really bitter, acrid kind of thing. And then the pulp, you know, this fruit, thin layer of fruit circling the seeds is exquisite. Chocolate is not just one thing. The cocoa that comes, for example, from Madagascar has this really nice fruit acidity; it’s almost sour. The cocoa that comes from Ghana is the baseline that we use for a deep, chocolatey flavor. The cocoa that comes from Vietnam, I kept turning over the packaging on the bar to make sure they hadn’t added spices because it was so interestingly spicy. The world is available to us. So for me, again, chocolate has become this tremendously exciting journey.
And in the podcast we cover everything from—really, not just talking about farmers, talking to them. I was very committed to making sure we were touching the globe. So we’ve talked to people on multiple continents via, you know, like in Asia, in Australia, in Africa, in Europe, in North and South America, and really heard from them where they fall in this cocoa story and what they can contribute, and how that enhances our experience as chocolate lovers. And I can just say, from the kinds of feedback I’m getting and from what I know from my own experience, that it’s transformative, and it makes me love this substance that’s been a life anchor even more.
AOC: Mm, gosh, what an exciting and fascinating story—it’s so fun! Okay, well, so, as we’re wrapping up here, Simran, I’m wondering if you would just take a small bit and read to us from your book.
SS: Absolutely, I would love to.
AOC: Yes. So Simran is going to read [from] her book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.
SS: “Taste is something we all do and all have. It doesn’t just belong to foodies or sophisticates. Each of us owns and shapes this construct. What we feel about tasting and eating—what we savor—shouldn’t be discriminatory or hierarchal. Because if we operate from the premise that only certain people own taste, then there is no point in exploring. We should all just frequent the places that have collected the most promising Yelp reviews or greatest number of Michelin stars.
“I refuse to do that. I refuse to let someone else define what delicious is for me. To whatever extent I can, I want to define and redefine what tastes good. I want to define what is good—for me. And I want you to do the same for you, because taste is both universal and personal. What each and every one of us cherishes matters.
“I have found deliciousness in a bucket of yucca (accompanied by large plastic cups of rum) on a farm outside of Havana; in perfectly fried eggplant served in a Mumbai dhaba (diner), where my girlfriend and I kept our feet hovering just about the floor to avoid contact with cockroaches; and in my Aunt Toshi’s kitchen. Great tastes are everywhere. Sometimes they’re fancy, but most of the time they are not.
“Finding those tastes requires less of an open wallet and more of an open mind and heart….
“Risk, however big or small, requires a kind of courage that, through this journey I now understand, can be mapped onto our lives as a whole. “You are here to risk your heart,” writes Ojibwe author Louise Erdrich in her masterful work The Painted Drum: A Novel (P.S.). “You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness….”
“These words and tastes have become my touchstone, as I try to savor all I can, both bitter and sweet….
“Taste is the gateway through which we will transform food. By savoring foods like we never have before—by demanding what’s delicious—we can transform what is grown and sold. It is the first step in reclaiming what we love.”
AOC: Mm, that is gorgeous and should be a strong incentive to go out and read the Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, by Simran Sethi, who is here with us today. Simran, if our listeners want to find out more about your work and the podcast, where should they go?
SS: You bet. For the podcast they can go to theslowmelt.com. All nine episodes of our show are there or will soon be there. And we’re starting a maker’s series this summer, so you’ll be able to hear stories directly from chocolate makers. We’re going to give discount on the bars that they’ve made that we’ll be tasting along with them. So you will get a deeper story than you’ve ever gotten before about your chocolate and be able to literally imbibe the story. And you can find out more about my work by going to simransethi.com, that’s s-i-m-r-a-n-s-e-t-h-i.com
AOC: Great, thank you. And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. We’ll see you next week.
You can listen to Rootstock Radio on the go at iTunes and Stitcher, and find us online at rootstock.coop/radio. Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.