Quirks and Quarks

Exploring culinary extinction: the foods we have eaten out of existence

Lenore Newman's new book 'Lost Feast' looks at the changing foods on our tables

Lenore Newman's new book 'Lost Feast' looks at the changing foods on our tables

Vancouver's Granville Island Public Market represents the best of both the regional and global food systems according to Lenore Newman (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Originally published on December 21, 2019.

It all came of a discussion between food researcher Lenore Newman and a friend. They were discussing whether species that we ate would be preserved from extinction because we'd make the effort to save them, if only to keep supplying our dinner tables.

This led Newman to investigate the phenomenon of "culinary extinction" in which humans have, by hunting foods to extinction, or just changing our eating habits, allowed edible species and varieties of plant to disappear. 

She explores this, and what it means for the future of food in her new book, Lost Feast - Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food.

Lenore Newman is the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of The Fraser Valley.

Lost Feast by Lenore Newman (ECW Press)

Here is part of her conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

What exactly is culinary extinction?

Culinary extinction refers to species that have become extinct primarily because we eat them, and literally we just couldn't say no to second helpings until they were all gone. And it turns out there's actually been a number of species we've eaten right off of the planet.

What have we lost to culinary extinction?

The passenger pigeon is kind of the greatest culinary extinction of all time because it was one of the most plentiful birds on Earth, and we literally did eat it to death. We're talking about billions of birds. So it's a very impressive extinction. The auroch is also interesting. It was the prototype of the cow. They disappeared in Poland in the late 17th century.

I also talk about some of the early extinction in the Paleolithic era such as mammoth. Definitely human hunting was a big part of their vanishing. We also lost, in the Canadian context, four of the six Buffalo species here. There is plant extinction as well. There's sort of an arc throughout history of places we got it wrong. And I always see extinction as the ultimate failure. It's like if you were doing a course and the goal was to keep something alive. If the whole species goes extinct, you're you're not going to pass. So it's a bad outcome.

You are saying this is just largely from transportation. We have access to fewer varieties because we don't need to grow all the others anymore.

Yes exactly, our motivation shifted. Instead of having to provide locally for as long a season as possible we could grow the cheapest, easiest to transport varieties. Now why this is a problem and not just progress is twofold. Number one we lost some of the tastiest varieties and that's a bit of a shame. And number two, because they're all genetically different they give us resilience.

So if a disease for example comes and attacks all the bananas on Earth, we have a problem now because all the bananas are genetically identical. They're actually clones of the Cavendish banana. And so they all die at once. So if you have a thousand different types of bananas some of them are going to be able to face climate change or face disease. You need that library of genetic material and what I like to say is it's like we have a library that took us 10,000 years to build and we burned it and we're going to miss it.

Cavendish bananas, which are pretty much the only species we see in groceries, may be in danger of extinction because they lack genetic diversity. (Bryan Eneas/CBC )

You talk about culinary extinction in different parts of the world but what about here in Canada? What kind of extinction have we seen?

Well one of the ones that bothers me is when we settled this region the indigenous people here were farmers and we often don't think of them that way but they did farm quite extensively. So here on the west coast, there was a lot of berry farming and they would clear areas with fire and weed out plants they didn't want. They ate wild carrots, they ate wild camas bulbs which are a bit like an onion, spring bank clover was a popular crop. It creates a root that I'm told tastes a little bit like peanuts or popcorn.

These crops were really important and settlement basically wiped a lot of them off the map. And because Europe and Asia dominated settlement around the world their foods dominate and in the book I talk about how a lot of our crops come from one tiny region, the Mountains of Heaven or the Tian Shan in Kazakhstan because it was at the centre of the Silk Road. Basically the biodiversity of North America hasn't been fully explored because of colonialism.

Now you do talk about something called cellular agriculture in your book. What's that?

One of my favourite emerging food technologies is cellular agriculture where you try and grow burgers without a cow, you do it in a vat,  or producing dairy products without a cow by using fermentation processes. So instead of brewing beer you brew milk and the reason I feel those are so important is the cow is a terrible piece of technology. They're hoof print is so much vaster than any other part of the food system.

We have to look at how do we rein that in because the world is demanding more beef and dairy products. And we know from studies out of Guelph University we can't scale the current system to feed everyone that way, it just won't work.

So are we going to see the cow disappear? What's the future of the hamburger?

I think it'll either be made out of plants like the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger or it will be grown in a lab for the large part. Now that doesn't mean that if you go to northern Alberta you won't have grass fed beef and maybe a little steak.

The future of the hamburger may look like Beyond Meat plant based burger ( Albert Leung/CBC)

When we think about 60 to 70 per cent of all beef produced in America going into hamburger, that's an opportunity for technology companies that is just too good to pass up.

If we look at the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger, they're about 95 percent more efficient in terms of land use, about 90 percent more efficient in terms of carbon output and about 85 percent to 90 percent more efficient in terms of water use. And some people say to me they are processed, they're not as healthy and you know maybe they don't taste quite perfect yet, but I want to stress the 'yet'. They are a piece of technology. As we speak, Impossible Burger is rolling out burger 3.0, I can't do that with a cow. I can't make a cow that is 20 times more efficient in a reasonable amount of time. So I think these technologies will win for a lot of the applications and we'll be glad they did.

Produced and written by Mark Crawley