Decolonizing And Diversifying The Future Of Food
This story is a part of our spring Book Club conversation about ‘Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food.’ Want to participate? Join our new online community space or record a voice message on the Science Friday VoxPop app.
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The Science Friday Book Club has been talking about food all spring while reading Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food. We discussed the impacts of meat consumption, the extinction of beloved birds and plants, and the declining variety of fruit and vegetable varieties available in stores—and even about the flow of pollinator-produced crops in global food systems.
Producer Christie Taylor shares highlights from our off-radio Zoom event series, which asked, “What is the future of food, and who can help influence it for the better?”
At this April 20th panel, Lost Feast author and food geographer Lenore Newman joined farmer and former chef Mimi Edelman to talk about the future of food and flavor—from preserving heirloom seeds to the stories behind beloved flavors, and how policy changes and individual actions might contribute to a sustainable future.
At this May 4th panel, food researchers Katie Kamelamela, Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, and Melissa K. Nelson talked about their work researching and restoring Indigenous foods to Hawaii and the mainland United States. They explained how these foods were disrupted by colonization, and how food relationships fit into a future vision of sustainable food worldwide.
Lenore Newman is author of Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food, and the director of the Institute for Food and Agriculture at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada.
Mimi Edelman is owner of the “I & Me Farm” and co-chair of the Northeast/New England Slow Food USA Ark of Taste Committee. She’s based in Orient Point, New York.
Katie Kamelamela is an ethnobotanist and postdoctoral fellow with the Akaka Foundation For Tropical Forests on Hawai’i Island, Hawai’i.
Noa Kekuewa Lincoln is an assistant professor of Indigenous Crops and Cropping Systems at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and co-founder of the Mala Kala’ulu Cooperative in Honolulu, Hawai’i.
Melissa K. Nelson is a professor of Indigenous Sustainability at Arizona State University and President of The Cultural Conservancy in Tempe, Arizona.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We are, as many have noted before on this show, in an extinction crisis. But what happens when that ripples out to plants and animals we rely on for food?
This was the topic of our spring book club, which centered on Lenore Newman’s Lost Feast– Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food. And as we close the book, so to speak, on another robust month of contemplation and discussion, SciFri producer and book-club captain Christie Taylor is here to present some highlights. Hey, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: OK, what have we learned since we started this adventure?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, Ira, it has been an eventful few weeks, though most of it did happen out of earshot of the radio show. We’ve been having Zoom discussion meetings, guest experts all over the place. So I want to take you back in time to three weeks ago, where we explored what the future of food might look like if we’re really serious about saving biodiversity in food systems.
Our guests were Lenore Newman herself and a farmer and former chef named Mimi Edelman, who works to help preserve threatened food crops and animals. We rehashed this problem of losing biodiversity, and I ended up asking Lenore, where could things really start to turn around? And she brought up one of the things she talks about in detail in the book, which is reducing our dairy and meat footprint.
LENORE NEWMAN: For the last 60 years or so, one of the driving forces in agriculture is to make meat really cheap, and that’s it. That’s the only variable that was stressed. And the environmental impact of that one part of the chain is massive. So for example, if we look at dairy, it covers massive areas that used to be primal forests, that were rainforest. And it’s about 3% of the climate change piece, just to its own, just for dairy. And you have to ask yourself, do we really need that? To me, it’s sort of the number one easy, low-hanging fruit.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mimi, I think we have a question that you might enjoy tackling, and it’s from Sara, our listener. And it’s about food commercialization overall.
SARA: Hi, yeah, so my question is, do you think the commercialization of place-based plants is positive for our world? For example, the relatively recent commercialization of the grain quinoa outside of its native Peru. Or should communities be focused on supporting these plants where they are native?
MIMI EDELMAN: I have a small farm, and I think small farms are real farms. There are places where not only we can embrace biodiversity, but we’re also in the position to educate and reach out to our communities and begin our seed-saving practices. When you grow a plant and you save that most vital seed from the mother plants, that seed is going to be most adaptable for most regions in New York. So when you close the cycle and create a very robust resource for seed and harvest, I think you play a very important role in introducing these foods that are at risk.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Lenore, you’re really optimistic about replacing a lot of our meat consumption by basically growing it in the lab. An anonymous listener wants to know if you could talk a bit more about why you think that’s important. And then Rebecca has a question about genome editing. Go ahead, Rebecca.
REBECCA: Thank you so much. So I kind of want to know what you think about the generation of new species through genetic engineering and genome editing keeping up with the rate of culinary extinction and what factors kind of help determine the rate of change on both sides of that equation.
LENORE NEWMAN: To me, pretty well everything we do in agriculture is a technology, and I often use the example of a cow because cows are not natural. They’re bred out of a creature called the aurochs, which went extinct in Poland a few hundred years ago. If we look at the cow as a piece of technology, it wasn’t great for mass production.
Now, it’s fine if you have a few cows. But it’s a megafauna. There were never supposed to be this many cows. So I’m a true believer there’s no such thing as a bad technology, but where you must, must work is on the policy side.
That policy is well it puts a ring around the technology that you’re using. And that goes for everything, from an iron plow to the first time we interbred to species like a strawberry is both a North American and European cross-breed. But you need the policy.
And the problem is our policy environment has been about profit for a very long time now. It has not about environment. It’s not going about animal ethics. It’s certainly not been about health. Now, the trick is making sure we’re living in a world where the hurting animals and the genetics can’t end up with all sitting in a smoking wasteland.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mimi, it feels like it can be very fashionable right now to eat sustainably. We’re eating locally from small farms, organic. The food industry is using these terms as selling points for food. But is it enough for us as consumers to just look for those words and buy accordingly?
MIMI EDELMAN: I found, just within my short career, that words like organic or free range, grass fed, they had a truth to them. But now, they’ve become a trend that I’m afraid that the consumer can’t fully trust. And I feel the only way– and this is how I eat and navigate my local food shed– is I meet the growers. And that is the best way to make your choices, not necessarily by the language that is on the package but in the relationship with the farmer because the consumer plays a very vital role in all of the issues that we’re talking about today.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Listener Casey has a question, which gets more to what individuals can do to help preserve biodiversity, even if we can’t go meet our farmer directly. Go ahead, Casey.
CASEY: It seems like with people, there’s two things that are going on. One, we want to be comfortable, right? We want to eat food that we feel comfortable with. But on the other hand, we also want variety. And so I guess I was wondering if the desire to have this variety could somewhat be filled by expanding just the food that we have in our local region?
LENORE NEWMAN: Yeah, support farmers that are working outside the box. Go to the restaurants that you may pay an extra dollar to for the strange variety. Go to the farmers who are producing because, ultimately, they need us. And number two, I really do tell everyone to eat less meat. It is the single biggest thing you can do for climate change, bar none.
The last thing I do like to tell people is we need the bees. Don’t use chemicals that kill bees. And if you have any kind of land or balcony, put out flowers bees like. If you’ve ever wanted a hive of bees, for crying out loud, start one. It’s a really good idea. It’s like having thousands of small friends. It’s wonderful.
MIMI EDELMAN: I think that the consumer should open their palates. There may be foods that they have savored in the past that were disappointing, revisiting them when they’re truly seasonal, to revisit those foods. Begin to wander into food history, and Indigenous foods, wild foods.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So that was it for that chat. Thanks so much to Dr. Lenore Newman, and Mimi Edelman, and all our listeners for that really great conversation.
IRA FLATOW: Truly was, Christie, and I really liked what Mimi said right there at the end about revisiting Indigenous foods and their history.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, absolutely, Ira. And actually, we had a lot more to dig in on that topic, a lot that wasn’t even touched on in Lenore’s book. So we pulled together another live event with some Indigenous food experts to talk about their food specifically. Doctors Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, Katie Kamelamela, and Melissa Nelson joined us to talk about the work being done to restore Indigenous crops to Hawaii and mainland North America. And I asked Katie, who is native Hawaiian, to describe some of the foods that Hawaiians cultivated prior to colonization.
KATIE KAMELAMELA: Native, there wasn’t too many things that were able to be eaten– popolo berries, and leaves, ohelo berries, similar to a raspberry, and some fern shoots, roots, and stems. But then Polynesians came in migrations and brought agricultural systems, social systems to tend to those, which include bread fruit, sweet potato, taro, sugar cane.
So those caloric rich tubers and fruits that Polynesians brought were stored through different ways of packaging, or fermentation, or underground baking, which is what I did my research on. So different relishes were made from seaweeds and kukui nut, which people still use today. What Polynesians brought with them was the bulk of their sustenance.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Melissa, you come from several mainland tribes and are doing restoration work in California in unceded Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo territories. What would you add about traditional foods where you’re working?
MELISSA NELSON: I’ll just give maybe a few other examples and really reinforce a couple of points about the geophytes, about the underground tubers, which were so important also here in California and still are with the coastal prairie ecosystems and the oak savannas with, this time of year, with the yampa, and the yellow calochortus the wild onions, the alliums, and how important those underground tubers and corns were and are for traditional native foods. One thing really powerful is that there used to be seven species of abalone off of the California coast, and, sadly, we’re down to one species now off the coast of California, the red abalone.
And it’s off limits to any harvesting. And that is considered such an important sacred food source to many of the coastal tribes, their stories about abalone woman that are part of their creation stories and times. And of course, it wasn’t due to their overharvesting that caused their extinction or their endangerment, but it was a lot of climate change, water pollution, and overharvesting because the black market of abalone.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I want to touch on one thing from the book we’ve been reading that relates to this concept of overharvesting. Lenore writes about how Indigenous peoples in North America may have hunted mammoths and other megafauna to extinction. Noa, as someone who looks back in time where food is concerned, do you think that’s true?
NOA KEKUEWA LINCOLN: So in the case of the megafauna in North America, that whole line of thought and discussion originates from a single anthropologist in the 1950s and said, this is probably true because there is these 12 mammoths we found that show evidence of something. And that’s really the only evidence we had. There was evidence that mammoths were hunted, and then, in his mind, it was like, well, the mammoths went extinct. They hunted them to extinction.
It was a huge leap of logic. Subsequently, there’s been a lot of evidence that have come up against that. These megafauna extinctions happen simultaneously on three different continents. There is a parallel decline in small mammals that weren’t hunted.
But yeah, to me, the really important part is, pretty universally in Indigenous cultures, there’s a very strong notion of kinship with environment. Pacific Island groups, there is a very acute awareness of resource limitation and the need to appropriately manage it. So in Hawaii, even on a bad season, if the fish seem less plentiful, there were immediate [INAUDIBLE] for that, right? Nobody can touch this fish. We need to let it recover.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a quick reminder that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Christie Taylor. And we have a question from [? Anoreh ?] in Minnesota about wild rice. Go ahead.
[? AHOREH: ?] I was very privileged to be able to get [INAUDIBLE] wild rice from Nett Lake. It’s Bois Forte reservation. This is very, very different from paddy rice, and I think it’s important to tell people there is a big difference between paddy rice and wild rice that is hand-parched My question is, how do we promote this? How do we keep the natural hand-parched wild rice known and respected? Thank you.
MELISSA NELSON: Miigwech, thank you for your attention to detail. And yes, wild rice is not paddy grown, cultivated genetically modified rice. It comes out of agri-business farm in northern California. And yet that’s what’s often sold as wild rice in grocery stores, and they have even tried to get away with calling it Native American wild rice.
And there’s been some lawsuits against that because it’s not truth in advertising. We need to be supporting Native American food gatherers, wild rice harvesters from the Great Lakes– Nett Lake, Red Lake, White Earth. Also the American Food Sovereignty Alliance has a good network of native food producers, including wild rice producers, that you can purchase from.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Looking to the future, we’re in a climate crisis right now which is exacerbating an existing extinction crisis. What is your vision for the future of Indigenous foods?
KATIE KAMELAMELA: Indigenous agriculture, food systems, ways of life are very hyper visible in our society but are also very invisible. And it would be really great for viewers to evaluate their relationship with Indigenous peoples, historically in their own family, and how they want to develop those relationships today, whether it be through volunteering, or reading these books to listen to another side, or generating a palate for the food to be a part of that movement.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And Melissa?
MELISSA NELSON: Well, first of all, I’m very hopeful about the whole sustainable food movement that seems to have caught on in every sector of society– urban, rural, rich, poor, black, white, red, yellow. We see restaurants popping up now that you can have Native American cuisine and other Indigenous heirloom seed varieties and foods On your palate and on your plate, very exciting.
And I think, lastly, I’ll say there’s been a historic treaty, the Buffalo treaty, signed between dozens of Native American tribes on both sides of the US-Canadian border, opening up tribal lands and working with protected areas to open up space for the Buffalo to roam again, both for ecological reasons, and cultural reasons, and for food sovereignty, and cultural health and well-being. So I think that is a wonderful example of inner tribal and intercultural cooperation to bring back a sacred food source for Native America.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thanks so much to Dr. Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, Dr. Katie Kamelamela, and Dr. Melissa K. Nelson for that amazing dive into Indigenous foods. And you can learn more about them and the work they’ve been doing on our website.
IRA FLATOW: So much to get your head around, Christie. That’s such an optimistic point that Melissa made, about how the systems are coming together to bring culturally valuable foods into the forefront.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, Ira, it’s really actually kind of amazing to me. There are so many people ready l work together to make good changes stick and preserve biodiversity. And I really feel like I know where to plug myself in to contribute to that. And on top of that, we had a lot more to talk about that wasn’t in what you just heard. If your eyes feel bigger than your stomach and you want to feast on either of those two events in full, the video is up on our website, ScienceFriday.com/bookclub.
Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.