The Current

'Food is a keystone': How to save our favourite foods from extinction

Pears so creamy you could spread them 'like jam,' mammoth stew, dishes of the Roman empire seasoned with the long-lost herb silphium. Author and culinary geographer Lenore Newman tells us about extinct foods, why humans are so good at loving them to death, and how we can prevent others from disappearing.

Culinary geographer Lenore Newman on the history and future of extinct foods

Lenore Newman, who has written about the extinction of foods, warns that 'if the food system falls apart, civilization basically is not far behind.' (Shutterstock)

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Originally published on Oct. 7, 2019.

If Lenore Newman could go back in time, she says one of the foods she would most like to taste would be the extinct Ansault pear, with a texture so creamy you could put it on toast and "spread it like jam."

Or, she would travel back to the Roman empire and try the herb silphium, which flavoured the ancient Romans' most iconic dishes, but disappeared forever more than 2,000 years ago.

They're some of the extinct delicacies that Newman looks at in her new book, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food. 

"Food is a keystone: if we can get food right, if the food system can be sustainable and feed everyone, we probably will survive as a species," she told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch. "But if food goes, if the food system falls apart, civilization basically is not far behind." 

Newman, the Canada research chair in food security and the environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, explored the history of foods that humans have literally eaten to death, and what they can tell us about how to stop the rest of our favourite dishes from disappearing.

Lenore Newman has just published a new book, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food. (Submitted by Lenore Newman)

The cautionary tale of the passenger pigeon

The passenger pigeon is one of the more recent examples of humans obliterating a species they loved. Martha, the last passenger pigeon on Earth, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The species's demise had been swift. The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world.

When European settlers first colonized North America, Newman said, there were so many passenger pigeons that the sky would darken when they flew across. 

They were an important food to the Haudenosaunee and other Indigenous communities around the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, and they soon became important to settlers. The iconic Québécois meat pie tourtière was originally baked with passenger pigeons — the name comes from the French word for passenger pigeon, tourte — and the chef would sometimes leave the feet poking out of the crust of the pie, Newman said. 

But soon, telegraphs helped hunters quickly get word of where the flocks were roosting, and railways made it easier for them to travel there, Newman said. Bigger marketplaces made it more convenient to sell the dead birds off in larger quantities. 

And then, suddenly, it was gone.

A statue of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2013. Martha died on Sept. 1, 1914, at the reported age of 29. Passenger pigeons were once the most abundant bird in North America. (Al Behrman/Associated Press)

"It is the most striking extinction, in some ways, because it happened so quickly, from plentiful to zero," Newman said.

She said that part of why humans have been eating foods to extinction for millennia is that we're just too efficient at getting dinner.

"Our technologies just totally overwhelm the ability of the natural world to maintain species numbers," she said.

She added that humans have evolved to be much better at responding to short-term than long-term problems.

"If someone throws a baseball at you, you've probably got a good chance of catching it — we're very good at that kind of thing," she said. But, "if climate change starts to impact your ecosystem, we're not so good at that."

She said the fate of the passenger pigeon is also a cautionary tale for fishing today. 

"Fish are very similar to passenger pigeons in behaviour — they flock," she said. "We may want to consider not fishing in the wild at all."

Fruits and vegetables also in danger

It's not just our favourite meats and fish that are at risk, Newman said. 

Many fruits and vegetables could also be vulnerable to extinction because so few subspecies of them are being grown now.

"I may have had thousands of varieties of apples to pick from at one time, and now [we've] lost 80 to 90 per cent of them," Newman said.

Lenore Newman says the world has lost 80 to 90 per cent of the subspecies of food crops, including subspecies of apples. (Shutterstock / DarrenWagner)

That lack of diversity is particularly concerning to many scientists, because if a disease or other stressor wipes out one variety of a fruit or vegetable, there may not be other varieties left to take its place.

"If we're only growing one variety of bananas, for example, if they fall out of the food system, we lose all the cultural associations, we lose all the industry [associated] with those foods," said Newman. "The food just kind of falls off the map."

'I remain pretty hopeful'

But it's not too late to turn things around when it comes to the extinction of foods, Newman said. It's still possible to cultivate a far wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and there are many actions that people can take in their own lives.

Newman recommended that anyone with a bit of a yard or balcony plant some bee-friendly plants.

"We need bees for about a third of our plant crops and they're under constant stress," she said.

She's also encouraged by advances in what's known as cellular agriculture — products like lab-grown meat, or a new ice cream made from dairy proteins cultivated in a lab, without any cows.

"You can't tell [the ice creams] apart if you taste them ... it's a little freaky," she said.

A professor holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger in London on Aug. 5, 2013. Culinary geographer Lenore Newman says lab-grown meat and dairy alternatives give her some hope that the extinction of some foods can be turned around. (David Parry/Reuters)

Adopting more of those technologies and using less land for farming would allow more land to be converted back into wilderness, Newman said, and give more species a fighting chance at survival.

"I will admit I remain pretty hopeful," she said.

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Julie Crysler.