Rob Percival works in food policy and writes about food and sustainability.
The Altrincham Carrot is long and slender, with bright red roots and a vivid green top. It was once widely grown and commonly consumed in Britain; the first official record of its cultivation dates back to 1842. It has a mild flavour and a crunchy complexion; it is versatile and easy to grow. Today, however, despite its rich heritage, the Altrincham Carrot has become a forgotten food. It survives only in private gardens and conservation projects. It will not be found on the shelves of any British supermarket.
The demise of the Altrincham Carrot is exemplary of a wider trend. A great number of distinctive local foods – goosefoot, hopshoots, vervain, beremeal, medlars, Saltcote Pippin apples, Shetland black potatoes – are also disappearing from dinner plates across Britain. This pattern of diminished diversity is being played out globally. Diets are converging the world over. Production is focussed on a narrowing number of crops.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimate that there are as many as 300,000 edible plants growing on the planet today, but for the most part we eat about a dozen. In the past half century thousands of plants have dropped out of use. Local varieties of sorghum, millet, rye, cassava and yam are in decline, while wheat, corn, soybean and sunflower are taking over.
This drivers of this trend are complex and often contradictory. One driver relates to efforts to tackle malnutrition: around two billion people suffer from malnutrition globally, meaning they struggle to access sufficient food to make up a healthy diet. Governments, seeking to make more food available, have targeted subsidies at a narrow range of high-yielding crops. Multinational food companies have responded by breeding and distributing these varieties, while trade liberalisation has opened up commodity markets and increased their global availability.
The result is more food, available through global supply chains to those that need it most. But the result is also that locally distinct foods are side-lined – rejected as less efficient or less profitable – and begin to drop out of production.
A second driver relates to shifting food preferences. Processes of urbanisation coupled with the expansion of global media have altered cultural expectations: a ‘Western’ diet, high in meat, oils and sugar, is seen as desirable by growing numbers of people. Food companies and advertising agencies have sought to access these new markets, working to make a multitude of branded products available. The result is an increase in ‘consumer choice’, but these branded products, often highly processed, are typically made of the same few crops produced on a mass scale around the world. As demand rises for these branded products, locally distinct foods are edged out of the market.
This decline in food diversity has a number adverse consequences. “A shared axiom of ecology and nutrition is that, within certain ranges, diversity enhances the health and function of complex biological systems,” write the authors of a 2014 study published in PNAS journal. This axiom holds true of agricultural systems, ecological systems, and the human body.
In natural and agricultural ecosystems diversity in plant and animal species provides resilience. As diversity diminishes and agricultural systems become more uniform they become less resilient and more susceptible to climate variability and extreme events.
In the human body, dietary diversity supports nutritional adequacy – the human body needs between fifty and a hundred different chemical compounds and elements in order to be healthy. As diets converge around the ‘Western’ model, ill-health skyrockets; obesity is becoming a global epidemic.
Diversity provides the lens through which the paradoxes of our global food system come into focus. Seen through the lens of diversity, we see how efforts to produce more food might, paradoxically, result in reduced food security. Seen through the lens of diversity, we see how increasing consumer choice might, paradoxically, result in a less vibrant and varied marketplace.
The challenge facing policy-makers is how to harness the benefits of a global food system oriented around maximising production – which is delivering important short term benefits to many people – without undermining the system's long term health and resilience. This requires policies that seek to halt and reverse the decline in food diversity.
One approach would be to promote a more diverse range of farming systems. “Multiple food systems must be combined to improve resilience through enhanced diversity,” explains Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. “Different forms of farming can coexist, each fulfilling a different function.”
Another approach involves ‘seed vaults’. These aim to safeguard the world’s unique crop genetic material in a library of seeds. “Genetic resources have a critical role to play in feeding the world, especially as climate change advances faster than expected,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organization explains. “Much more needs to be done to study, preserve and utilize the biological diversity that underpins world food production.”
As climate change advances, the potential threat it poses impinges into public consciousness and the issue rises up the media and political agendas. As extreme weather events become more common, as stories emerge of a genetic ‘Noah's Ark’ hidden beneath the Arctic ice, the undertone begins to edge towards the apocalyptic. This undertone is further accentuated by apparent ruptures in the Western political order, including the British vote to leave the European Union and the rise of Donald Trump.
Whatever one's political orientation, both ‘Brexit’ and Trump may be understood as reaction against processes of globalisation. Commentators across the political spectrum have suggested that this reaction has been fuelled, in part, by the erosive effect of globalisation upon local identities. For many people, for many reasons, the incursion of global market forces is experienced as a threat to long-held and highly-prized facets of identity. The resurgent ‘nativism’ and nationalism associated with Brexit and Trump may be a response to this experience.
Could a renaissance of local food diversity help to alleviate this experience? By enacting policies designed to boost the production and consumption of locally distinct foods, could governments not only enhance the health and resilience of agricultural and natural ecosystems, but also the wellbeing of communities? Could a commitment to locally distinct cultivation help to cultivate locally distinct cultural traditions, offering consumers a way to reconnect to the local landscape and ecosystem, and to locally-held skills?
The Altrincham Carrot is just one of many forgotten foods – undoubtedly there are foods unknown to you, distinctive to your locale, that are under threat, even now. This may be a Dittisham Ploughman Plum, a Kentish cobnut, a Saltcote Pippin apple, or something very different. These foods may have been marginalised, forgotten, resigned to history, but by seeking them out – buying them, growing them, eating them – you can support a more diverse and resilient food system. You can perhaps even help to nurture new forms of local culture and local identity. Marginalised though they may be, forgotten foods might yet have an important role to play in a more sustainable food future.
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