You’d better like tapioca — because it looks like we’re going to have to eat a lot more of it in the future.
Tapioca pudding is made from cassava root, a woody shrub native to South America which grows from nothing, requires little fertilizer and can thrive just fine during dry and hot years. In a world where resources are more strained, it will become an increasingly important ingredient.
“We will, most certainly, have to eat more cassava, a plant that grows where little else will,” writes Rob Dunn in his new book, “Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply And Our Future” (Little Brown).
This is just one takeaway from Dunn’s thoroughly frightening new book, which describes how the diversity of the foods we eat has dwindled as society has modernized. Thirty thousand years ago our ancestors regularly consumed hundreds of plant and animal species that varied with the seasons. If a bug hit one species, we could easily adapt and replace it with others. Not anymore.
People in most countries are eating more calories than ever — but those calories are also less varied than ever before. Today, 80 percent of the calories we consume come from just 12 species. The bulk of our nutrition comes from wheat, corn, potatoes, soybeans, meat and dairy, while regional crops like sorghum, millet and sweet potatoes have become increasingly less important.
Though we grow more food than ever before — and fewer people go hungry in the world than at any time in history — we are today more vulnerable to natural catastrophes, global warming, eco-terrorism and health issues like diabetes and heart disease, writes Dunn.
Our abundance “is tenuous, dependent on our ability to protect the very few species on which we now depend,” writes Dunn. “The problem is that nearly all those key species are in trouble, because in simplifying the production of our food we achieved short-term benefits at the expense . . . of long-term sustainability.”
By 2050, the global demand for food is estimated to more than double. Turning to other food stuffs, such as cassava root, isn’t the only solution offered by the book. Dunn says we can also shop locally at farmer’s markets, be more daring with our veggies, and eat less meat (“Meat eating is nearly always a waste of food resources relative to eating plants,” Dunn writes).
We should also bone up on our food supply facts, like these, extracted from Dunn’s book . . .
The great chocolate crisis
To see how easy it is to destroy an industry just look at Brazil’s cacao catastrophe. A powerful fungus called witches broom basically wiped out all of the cacao trees in Brazil in the late 1980s. Production declined by over 75 percent in some areas. When the first infected tree was discovered, Brazil was the second biggest chocolate exporter in the world. Four years later, it imported more than it exported. Years later, in 2006, Luiz Henrique Franco Timoteo stepped forward and admitted that he and five members of the left-leaning populist Worker’s Party in Brazil had introduced the virulent fungus to the country in order to “undermine [cacao] barons’ economic and political clout by destroying the cacao industry.”
“If Timoteo’s story was true, the loss of an entire nation’s cacao was linked to the actions of a tiny handful of men,” writes Dunn. “How many other crops might be as easily destroyed as cacao, whether by a rogue individual, a terrorist organization, or another government?”
His logic isn’t far-fetched: In 2002, Navy SEALs discovered al-Qaeda plans to unleash bioweapons on enemy food, livestock and crops.
Bananas are in trouble
In the 1950s, we ate Gros Michel bananas exported from Central America. When a blight hit, farmers replaced the Gros Michel with the less sweet and tasty but identical looking variety called the Cavendish. You’ve probably only ever eaten a Cavendish. Problem is, the Cavendish is now “at risk of exactly the same sort of population crash that befell the Gros Michel” from a new pathogen that has already spread from Asia to East Africa and “seems likely to make its way to America.”
“Saving the banana when the Cavendish collapses will depend on our finding yet another variety and having similar luck,” Dunn writes. “Alternatively, someone might be able to breed a new, resistant banana using some mix of new technologies and ancient varieties. But if they are going to do so, it will need to be soon.”
Climate could kill corn
As the soil gets exhausted and the globe gets warmer, plant species will start moving to colder climates — crops that are now growing in North Carolina will have to move to Michigan, and those growing in Michigan will shift to Canada. Corn, for example, will not be able to grow in many of the places it did in the 1950s, while the vast tropical stretches of the planet will become hotter and drier.
“Entirely new climates are predicted to emerge. Under such conditions, we do not know which species will succeed. Nor do we know which species we will be able to farm; such species will have to be tough or die.”
Coffee’s under threat
“Coffee, like cacao, faces many threats. Among them are the coffee berry borer, a beetle that burrows into the seeds of coffee.”There’s also “a rust — the same rust that destroyed coffee in what is now Sri Lanka in the 1800s, where Arabica coffee was being grown.
That rust appears to be nearly unstoppable . . . and is now attacking essentially all varieties of coffee, including the robusta,” writes Dunn.