Author Simran Sethi
On The Slow Loss of Foods We Love
Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi highlights that food tells a tale—one about its origin and about us as a global community. It is a book about food and loss, but it’s also a story of love and of the relationships that nourish both on and off of the plate.
You write beautifully about the idea of connection between food both to other people and to the land itself. What are some examples of terroir, “the taste of place,” and how it manifests in foods we take for granted?
In my book, I talk about the taste of place in bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer, but it can be mapped on to nearly everything we eat and drink. That, I think, is the beauty of food. It is a reflection of who we are – if we allow it to be. Industrialization and standardization have stripped away a lot of that sense of place, so now we think of the coffee coming from the barista and the chicken coming from the grocery store. I wanted to return to the deeper origins of what we love, to go back to the source and the people and places that make what we cherish possible.
The loss of biodiversity is a serious threat. The Irish Potato Blight in the 1840s in which the main crop that the Irish depended on failed caused massive starvation and had major social, political and global implications. Yet, when we go into a grocery store and see aisles of options, we forget that our dependence on a relatively small number of crops could be catastrophic. What are some of the modern day risks and reasons for a loss of biodiversity? What role does climate change play in this?
The loss of agricultural biodiversity is where I am focused and it’s essentially a loss of diversity in everything that makes food possible – from soil to seeds to pollinators, from plants to animals to aquatic life. We need this diversity in order to grapple with future challenges, be it a disease (the partial reason all the deaths and hunger we saw during the Irish Potato Famine and what we’re seeing today with the decimation of the Cavendish banana due to Fusarium wilt) or pest, such as what we experienced due to phylloxera during the Great French Wine Blight or the volatility of climate change. Yes, we have climate models but we do not know exactly what will happen; some places will experience more flooding, others more drought. Places that could not before grow a variety of crops will soon be able to. But, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the net changes to food and agriculture will be those of loss.
If we take away diversity, we lose our options for breeding-in traits that we might need in the future, be it disease-resistance or drought-tolerance or even nutritional qualities or deliciousness.
Three-fourths of our food comes from 12 plant and 5 animal species. The reasons for these losses are myriad and range from pests and disease, but also because of cultural factors – our changing diets, trade agreements, wars. Food is a reflection of our history and identity. Our food web and agricultural system are a reflection of what we value.
As someone who grew up in a middle class, suburban home seeing TV commercials of starving children in faraway lands, I was surprised to learn that a lack of food production isn’t the main culprit of hunger. “The world produces more than one and a half times enough food to feed everyone on the planet, which is also enough to feed the population of 9.6 billion we anticipate by 2050. . . The people who grow food are too poor to buy it. The majority of these farmers are women, most of whom who live in extreme poverty.” How does access to food relate to inequality?
Here in the United States, one in five are food insecure. Yet 30 to 40 percent of people are obese or overweight and we throw 40 percent of our food away. This doesn’t compute. A lot of the changes we see in food and agriculture have been made in the name of feeding hungry people. But 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 more than 500 million people responsible for feeding the majority of the world’s population. Every time we stress the need for cheap food, we should ask ourselves why we pay less as a percentage of our income for food than we did during the Great Depression and why people aren’t paid enough to feed themselves well.
You write, “What we do to our ecosystems–what we do to our food– is what we do to ourselves. When we talk about depletion in soil and water, we’re also talking about something being depleted in us. When we refer to monocropping and monodiets, that monotony is a reflection of how we live our lives.” In your opinion, how can we remember who we are and what we hope to be through our food choices?
By remembering that food is the intimate commodity. It isn’t just fuel, it’s an expression of who we are. It’s our story. I know I want my story to be slow, not fast; to be rich, not depleted. What I was really trying to convey through the book is that these changes we see out in the world are a reflection of us. We shape them. We can reshape them. We can save food by savoring them – and, as poet Derek Wolcott so eloquently writes, “feast on our lives.”
Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in 12th Street, The Manifest-Station, Two Cities Review, The Establishment, The Oleander Review, For Her, Amendo, Bustle and Ravishly. She currently is at work on a memoir about coming of age with a chronic illness. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenjonik.