Last Friday, Simran Sethi
, gave a lecture entitled, “On the Emotional Geography of Biodiversity,” at Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus in Gibsonia. Sethi is a journalist and educator focused on food, sustainability and social change. She has spent years traveling the world interviewing farmers, brewers, winemakers, bakers and scientists in pursuit of discovering the importance of biodiversity to deliciousness and the well-being of our food system. Her book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love
, follows that journey. Sethi sat down with City Paper
to talk about the loss and love of our favorite foods.
When you say loss what do you mean by that?
Unbeknownst to most of us ... the most delicious and diverse varieties of the foods we eat are disappearing. I told the story of the loss of agricultural biodiversity through bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer, but the story extends to every food and drink we consume. It’s a loss of diversity in the soil and the microbes in the soil. It’s the loss of diversity in seeds, in pollinators, in plants, in animals, in fish, in every link of the food chain. The reason this is important is as we move toward what researchers are calling now the global standard diet, a diet that looks the same in most places in the world, we’re losing diversity and resilience in the kinds of varieties of foods that we grow. That means that we’re losing a backup system that we might need in the future.”
How might this affect the future of food?
When we grow foods in monoculture, we are really compromising our food system. The historical examples we have of that are the Irish potato famine where one-eighth of the population died when a single fungus wiped out a significant portion of the potato crop. Of course this is combined not only with agricultural factors like disease, but also with the political forces going on at any given time; but we see this happening over and over again. This happened with another disease that affected grape plants, known as phylloxera. That resulted in what’s known as the Great Wine Blight that occurred in France and Western Europe and affected the majority of grapes that were grown for wine. You look to Latin America and we see in Guatemala and Honduras a declaration of a state of emergency as the result of another kind of disease that has felled the coffee crop there. What we’re seeing is this kind of slow loss throughout the world and in large part, a result of a loss of accountability for how things are grown in far-flung places but also a demand for sameness, a demand that an industrialized system calls for which is highest yield at whatever cost.”
Why choose bread, wine and chocolate to illustrate this?
The book was originally all nutritional staples, so it would have been wheat, rice, potatoes. I was sitting in Italy, I spent four months there doing research at the food and agricultural organization of the United Nations and an NGO looking at agricultural diversity called Bioversity International. I was in my tiny flat in Rome trying to write this chapter on corn, boring myself for starters and thinking Michael Pollan wrote the greatest chapter on corn in the Omnivore’s Dilemma and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. How am I going to pull off this book?’ And I thought at that moment, ‘oh I’ll sprinkle a little chocolate on top, throw in a little wine for color’ but that was never the crux of the book.
I went back to the United States. I ran into, at the farmer’s market, my sister’s neighbor, whose husband is a chocolate maker. His background is in botany and I thought “this is the guy I need to talk to for my chocolate sidebar.” I ended up going to visit him at the chocolate factory the next day. At the end of the interview, he says, ‘do you want to visit the chocolate factory?’ Chocolate has been every birthday cake, my wedding cake, it got me through my divorce. It was fueling every page of research for the book. Of course, I wanted to go to the chocolate factory.
We get to this machine that melts the cocoa solids back to liquid form and the smell is just amazing and I touch it, this machine, like it’s the Lord or a lover or something, I’m just reaching for it. He’s agog. He takes this picture of me in this hair net with these earplugs. You know, I mean I look absolutely ridiculous. And then I get on the train to go back to the East Bay, and I realized this is what I don’t want to lose. This is what fuels my life. This is what brings me joy.
And so the book then became this exploration of all these foods, maybe that people tell us to enjoy in moderation or to take out of our diet completely…What we need to do was savor them. I thought the easiest way to talk about this was through things that had meaning for me. Chocolate, as I told you, balm of my heart. Coffee. Every day of my adult morning has started with coffee… I wanted to speak from that place of love, of a connection that transcended like, ‘this is just a beverage or this is just a food’ to say, ‘these are the anchors of my life.’… I thought by foraging that emotional connection, that it would touch a place in people where they would do the same. “
Look for an extended audio version of this interview on this week’s Sound Bite podcast at pghcitypaper.com