Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Diversity of Food

I'm often surprised by the eating habits of people.  Many of my classmates indicated that they have lots of favorite foods.  However, most people tend to eat the same basic set of foods.  I know that my food journal reflected very much a creature of habit.  Most days of the week I have yogurt and tea in the morning, hopefully some left overs for lunch, and then either home cooked stir fry, stew, leftovers from the restaurant or eating out.

I first ate sunchokes, aka Jerusalem artichokes, about five years ago.  It was during a potluck, and one of my friends, a visiting organic farmer from central California had brought them.  I loved the texture and nutty flavor - a huge improvement over the bland russet potato.  I raved to husband about how great they were, but had trouble finding a source.  Finally, I found some at the co-op, and eagerly brought home a pound to try.  My husband flat refused to cook them, and grudgingly tried some when I insisted.  After all that fuss, he LOVES them.  

So, I was surprised to see sunchokes listed as a major food source.  I've known about quinoa and amaranth far longer than I have sunchokes.  Turns out I can't digest quinoa, even if I sprout it, but that's another story entirely.

Actually, it's not really another story.  I 've mentioned before Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he discussed in depth why the different regions that developed agriculture actually developed agriculture.  He discusses that current hunter gatherer peoples know all of the local flora intimately - usually thousands of plants, fungi, and the animals too, and also that they tend to be quite keen on examining new types of edibles.

I asked my husband tonight why he was so adverse to trying the sunchokes.  He replied that physically it reminded him of ginger, so he was expecting something tough, fibrous and strong tasting.  I think you can reflect our hunter-gatherer instincts for recognizing many food sources into product and franchise recognition today, and therefore the success of name brands and chain restaurants.

You can go anywhere in the United States, and even in major cities around the world, order a BigMac and get the same BigMac that you could have received in your home town.  This makes for a superficially reliable and consistent food source.  We can theoretically consume many types of foods and cuisines, and yet most people have a very set food group that they regularly consume.

The problem of course is that these food sources are becoming harder to retain, and at the same time, people have developed a deep resistance to "new" foods.  I personally have some food prejudices - I don't want to eat bugs, heart organs, frogs or shark, and have refused to eat these things many times.  Also, changing my eating habits for a healthier lifestyle was a hard change, especially discontinuing to eat wheat products.  Even though I know it is healthier, I still resist the change.

Dabbling with plant genetics, planting monocultures of the same variety of species, using increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is leading to increasing risk of crop failures.  While there are several seed banks around the world which are in place to preserve genetic variety, if something truly catastrophic happened to one of our major crops, it would be very difficult to resurrect varieties which wouldn't be affected in a similar manner immediately.  
The Irish Potato Famine caused a massive reduction in that nation's population.  Within 10 years, the nation experienced roughly 25-30% loss in population as a combined result of famine-related deaths and emigration to other countries, primarily the United States.  A similar massive failure of wheat, rice or corn would have devastating effects world-wide.  Especially corn, as we rely on it for food, animal feed, and oil for manufacturing ethanol and other petroleum replacements.

No comments: