When We Love Our Food So Much That It Goes Extinct


We humans love food to death — literally.

From mammoths to passenger pigeons, we have driven our favorite meals to extinction through overhunting and habitat destruction. And globally, our tendency to overharvest just a narrow range of crops has limited the variety of foods we eat.

"When it comes to fruits and vegetables, we have access to only a fraction of the diversity that existed a century ago," says Lenore Newman in her forthcoming bookLost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food (out Oct. 8). She is the Canada research chair in food security and environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, in British Columbia.

In her book, Newman explores how human activity has limited our food options and still threatens what we are able to put on our plates.

"I think the important lesson that I took away from writing this book was realizing that things can — and do — go extinct even if we really love them," Newman told NPR. Silphium, a plant that was critical to Roman and Egyptian culinary society, is one of many examples of foods we loved that are now considered extinct. The stalk of the silphium plant was used to flavor food, and its leaves were fed to sheep and cattle to improve the flavor of their meat. Newman says the extinction of silphium taught us that loving a food is not enough to keep it in existence: "We actually have to fight to be conscientious, especially as we have a bigger impact on the planet," she says. "We need to be a little more thoughtful about how we eat."