Where’s Our Tickle-Me Loris?

We sure could use a loris.
Cute-as-a-button with beseeching, animé eyes, a homemade video of a slow loris luxuriating in a good tickle session has been viewed nearly 10 million times, bringing loads of attention (and donations) to the plight of this endangered species.
Where’s the poster child for endangered food?

We’re not talking about endangered foods like lobster thermador and cube steaks, though sightings are rare.
Or the truly extinct, like Kellogg’s Banana Frosted Flakes, the McDonald’s McDLT, with its hot-cold styrofoam overkill, and the products that suddenly disappear from Trader Joe’s shelves.
We’re concerned with foods that are on track to disappear from the face of the planet—irretrievably, irrevocably, and completely.

A century ago, we were growing and eating 14,000 apple varieties—nearly every state and region, town, and even neighborhood had its favored, distinct varieties. They came in all sizes, shapes, and colors, with different flavors and textures to suit each community’s taste and cooking style. Today, we’re down to 100 commercially-grown varieties- nearly all of them red, round, and sweet- but you’ll only find around 5 or 6 in your neighborhood supermarket; the same 5 or 6 varieties you’ll find in any neighborhood’s supermarket in any part of the country.

And we call ourselves foodies.
95% of the U.S. cabbage diversity, 91% of corn, 94% of peas, and 81% of tomato varieties have been lost. All in all, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates  that 75% of the world’s agricultural diversity has been lost in the past 100 years. There were those we liked too much and over-harvested, those we didn’t like enough and abandoned, and those that succombed to blight, pests, or climate change; but most were merely poorly suited to today’s large-scale, mechanized farming and long-distance shipping.

Of course quality of life suffers when choices and pleasures are limited, but more importantly, it puts our food supply at risk. There is always the possibility of crop damage  from factors like weather, pests, and blight, plus modern dangers posed by the still-unknown consequences of unleashing genetically modified organisms into the environment. The lack of diversity means that an entire plant species will be susceptible to the same threat—we could see global crop devastation from the spread of a single risk factor.

The solution is unthinkable for the World Wildlife Fund, but when charbono grapes are endangered instead of giant pandas or slow lorises, it helps to eat the species. We can encourage farmers to grow heirloom varieties by creating demand for them at farmers markets, produce markets, and supermarkets.

The genetic diversity of heritage varieties is well worth preserving. Their variations might prove to be the only answer to the crop tolerances and adaptations needed to weather the unknown and unforseeable conditions of farming’s future, and they restore forgotten flavors and pleasures to our tables.

We need to shop for selection and variety beyond the standard, hybridized strains and say no (very loudly) to genetically modified foods.

The US Ark of Taste is a catalog of endangered and threatened foods maintained by Slow Food USA. The website can help you locate growers, producers, and seed exchanges.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is nature’s backup plan, buried deep in an Arctic mountain 700 miles from the North Pole.



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One Response to Where’s Our Tickle-Me Loris?

  1. Amen to your well-written post! I’d like to offer another motive to your list of convincing reasons for crop diversification and shopping for selection and variety – that is the effect that good nutrition has on our health. Scientists are only now just beginning to understand how phytonutrients in plants impact our health. Particularly noteworthy is the importance of moving away from large scale production agricultural practices and their use of chemicals that influence a crop’s development. The normal growth and development of a plant is influenced by its primary metabolites but secondary metabolites are also present. Both of these are effected by the growing environment. Research has shown that when grown in conditions which induce stress, plants respond by generating different secondary metabolites. These organic compounds have been found to directly influence our health as plant consumers because these secondary metabolites act, among other things, as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Using pesticides and herbicides to increase crop yield has a potential side effect on a plant’s natural growth and development. It impacts secondary metabolites. Paradoxically, scientists are looking at ways to create genetically modified crops that contain these secondary metabolites which are significantly reduced or lost due to large scale agricultural practices. We are fortunate in the US to have an abundance of food that is relatively inexpensive. Yet, we are now one of the unhealthiest “developed” nations. It only goes to prove that you really are what you eat. Thanks for speaking out about this important topic.

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