Simran Sethi is a journalist and educator focused on food, sustainability and social change. Named the environmental “messenger” by Vanity Fair, a top 10 eco-hero of the planet by the U.K.’s Independent, and one of the top eight women saving the planet by Marie Claire, Simran is the author of the award-winning book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, about the story of changes in food and agriculture told through bread, wine, chocolate, coffee, and beer. She is an associate at the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute in Australia and a former visiting scholar at the Cocoa Research Centre in St. Augustine, Trinidad.
Q: Can you explain briefly to readers the relationship between climate change, biodiversity, resilience, and our food supply?
This is a big question. A conversation that’s grown louder in recent years (in IPCC reports and beyond) is how climate change is impacting and will impact our food supply. In some areas, a warming planet will be a good thing but general consensus is that global warming will be a net loss to agriculture and food security. This loss is exacerbated by the way we grow and raise food. Increasingly, it’s the same types and amounts, grown on larger farms in monoculture.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 95 percent of the world’s calories now come from 30 species. Of 30,000 edible plant species, we cultivate about 150. Three-fourths of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. This reduction in what we grow and eat, coupled with industrialization, is efficient from a business perspective but food isn’t a widget. Relying on fewer kinds of foods to feed ourselves makes us more vulnerable to any social and environmental challenges that may surface. It increases risk.
One pest or one disease could wipe out an entire crop, something that just may happen to the world’s most popular banana, the Cavendish. When it comes to climate change, we have plenty of models but don’t know exactly what a warmer planet will usher in. If the crop we grow (or animal we raise) can’t exist under those conditions, we need a backup. Or many backups. That’s why we need to preserve biodiversity. It increases resilience of our food supply by ensuring we have access to foods that can exist under future conditions and/or offer traits that can be used to make existing crops (breeds, etc.) more drought-tolerant, pest-resistant, or responsive to whatever’s needed.
Q: It seems to the average American in the grocery aisle that there are more kinds of food available than ever (kiwis, for example, in the Deep South; grains like farro and quinoa). Yet you make the case that food diversity has lessened in the past few decades. How do you deal with this contradiction when you’re trying to explain the loss of foods to folks who seem to be experiencing an explosion of choice?
I mention in my book a study that analyzed 50 years of data on what 98 percent of the world eats. Researchers found, on a local level, diversity of foods have increased. That explains the quinoa and faro. But on a global level, the trend is toward sameness. Wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and palm oil comprise what the researchers coined the “global standard diet.”
I understand the cognitive dissonance is a challenge. I mean, you walk into any grocery story and it’s chockfull of what seems like many different types of foods. But most of that diversity is in flavor or, maybe, brands (even though that’s shockingly consolidated, too). Ninety percent of our dairy products, for example—milk, ice cream, yogurt, butter, and so on—comes from one breed of cow, the Holstein-Friesian. We see one kind of banana—the threatened Cavendish I mentioned earlier—but the world grows over 1,000. There are over 7,000 varieties of apples grown all over the world, less than 100 of which are grown commercially here in the U.S. Nearly every historic fruit and vegetable variety that once grew here has disappeared.
Q: Can you discuss what you term in your book “in vivo” (“in living”) conservation: saving foods and drinks by consuming them? This seems a very first world notion, and I’m curious as to how much impact you think that will have given continued population growth, particularly in poor countries.
It’s interesting you call it a first world idea when the richest biodiversity on the planet is found in places like Asia and Africa. The introduction of westernized methods of agriculture—the monocropping, introduction of high-yielding varieties, use of inputs such as fertilizer and pesticide, and irrigation that make up industrialized agriculture—is one of the primary drivers of the loss of agricultural biodiversity.
Industrialization was ushered in during the Green Revolution of the 1960s with the noble intentions of feeding hungry people. But as we know, there is much more to this equation. We create produce enough calories to feed everyone on the planet—and feed the population of 9 billion we anticipate by 2050. Yet, globally, 795 million people are hungry. As I write in the book, “the challenge isn’t simply an issue of availability; it’s one of access. Food and the resources required to buy food aren’t efficiently or equally distributed. That’s why the hungriest people in the world are smallholder farmers—the over 500 million people responsible for feeding the majority of the world’s population. The people who grow food are too poor to buy it.”
I’ll also add that increasing biodiversity isn’t about eating fancier foods, it’s about increasing the range of what we eat. I wrote about this preservation through bread, wine, chocolate, coffee, and beer because this is a book published by an American house for a predominantly for Western audience. One that I am very much a part of. But I also add this loss is impacting nearly every food—and the way we help solve this problem is by reaching for anything outside of the global standard diet.
Conservationists define three ways of saving biodiversity. There’s ex situ or out of place conservation, such as saving seeds or other genetic material in places like seed banks. There’s in situ or in place conservation in the wild—saving rainforests and other wild places where our food and related crops and breeds grow. And there’s in situ conservation on farm—growing heirloom tomatoes would be a perfect example of this. But we can’t expect farmers to grow what we won’t eat so I propose in vivo conservation—saving foods by eating them.
Q: How do we resolve globally the tension between the food needs of growing populations and their reliance on monocultures, and the need for biodiversity?
The reliance on monocultures is one being ushered in by large-scale agribusiness and NGOs that feel this is the only way to feed hungry people. As I already mentioned, this is not true. We have the food—and we have alternative means of feeding ourselves. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports, “Unlike widespread perceptions, sustainable smallholders can be really productive. A large study examining smallholder agriculture covering 286 projects, over 37 million hectares in 57 developing countries, found that when sustainable agriculture was adopted, average crop yields increased by 79 percent. Also, sustainable systems were found more diversified, with yields often composed of more than a dozen crops and various animal products, generating higher yields per hectare. Higher yields mean increased household food security and higher household income, especially when money was saved through less fertilizer and pesticide use (Pretty et al, 2008).”
Q: In the section on coffee, you write about your decision to no longer seek out “organic” coffee after what you learn. You write: “Everyone wants a good life. In order to achieve it, we all have to make trade-offs.” Can you talk a little bit about what that means in the context of “organic?” And does that apply to other labels we’ve learned to seek out—“fair trade,” “locally grown,” etc.
Absolutism is not going to work in any capacity. We need a diversity of responses to feed ourselves well—in where, how and what we farm.
When it comes to organics, well, of course I don’t want synthetic pesticides on farmers or laborers, in soil or in the water supply, or in the foods and drinks I consume. But what I learned is a zero-tolerance policy for chemical application can really hurt farmers. Take coffee, for example. Coffee leaf rust is a disease that decimates coffee plants and can only be eradicated with synthetic fungicides. Farmers with organic certification that are impacted face two impossible choices—lose the crop to disease or lose organic certification because of fungicide application. We don’t see this but these are the realities farmers have to face.
Add to this, the fact that certification is costly and time-consuming.
My preference would be to do whatever I can to work with models that encourage direct relationships with the people growing and raising what ends up on my plate or in my cup. For me, that means seeking out the independent coffee shop that supplies direct trade coffees, frequenting my food co-op, and going to my local farmers market. Those relationships matter to me. And, again, this is not an elite pursuit. There are a growing number of SNAP-authorized farmers markets around the country.
Certification schemes such as Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance is one way to advance certain values but it isn’t the only way—and it isn’t always what we think it is. Many think, for example, that farmers are making more money when we pay a price premium for Fair Trade. The money actually goes into cooperatives where it may or may not be redistributed. Fair Trade is a great and important first step, but no one scheme solves all of our challenges. This awareness has allowed me to be more flexible in how I approach food. This is intimate; I am ingesting what I am given. I focus on places where I can foster relationships and shorten the supply chain whenever possible.
Q: Given your in-depth look at all aspects of food—biology, physiology, culture, history, politics—what’s the next subject you will tackle in such depth?
I love this question!
After doing extensive research for my beer chapter, I fell in love with yeast. It’s a fascinating microbe that not only turns wort to beer and juice to wine, it makes bread rise and contributes to the flavor of my favorite substance, chocolate.
Yeast cells are single-celled organisms that multiply quickly, but unlike bacteria, their cells have nuclei—like ours. We use yeast to understand basic biological functions, test pharmaceuticals, and understand life processes. Yeast was the first genome with a nucleus to be sequenced because it helps us understand who we are.
Shockingly, not everyone shares my obsession with yeast so I’m also looking at chocolate. It holds deliciousness, of course. But also history, identity, geography, justice, the same kinds of lenses you mentioned. I want to people to understand chocolate beyond confection.