Examples include the once-plentiful passenger pigeon and silphium, a popular spice that the ancient Romans harvested to extinction
Lenore Newman, the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, has a new book coming out this October.
Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food is the second book by Newman.
“The general idea is this: over time, we have driven certain food species to extinction at about 10 times the rate of background extinction and if we look at those extinct species, we can learn things about the current food system and what we might have to do to accommodate a growing number of people in a world with a lot of environmental problems. It goes through foods you can’t eat anymore and that’s the idea of the lost feast,” she said.
One of her favourite examples of lost foods is the passenger pigeon, which had been plentiful at one time.
“Indigenous people utilized it but because they utilized it at a very low rate, it was a sustainable harvest. When settlers first came to North America, it was a staple of their diet. So, a lot of people complained that they ate way too much passenger pigeon and for a couple of hundred years that was pretty stable. They were actually a bit of a plague on farming because these birds travelled in packs of millions and they would just descend on your farm and eat everything,” said Newman.
“But once we developed the railway, the telegraph, the public market, we could kill the birds in such numbers that we drove them to extinction and it’s one of the best known extinctions because it was so dramatic.”
Plants that have been consumed by humans have also gone extinct.
“One of the things I go into is a lot of varietals. In North America, 100 years ago, if you were looking at seed catalogues, we’ve lost about 95 percent of the cultivars that were in those seed catalogues just because we quit growing them and we moved towards the most durable cultivars,” she said.
“We shifted from a system in which you tried to grow to cover as big a season as possible to one where you grew whatever did best and shipped well and stored well. There’s advantages to that. We have vegetables in the middle of winter, which is wonderful, but we also gave up a lot.
“We lost a lot of durability, a lot of genetic variety and we lost a lot of diversity of flavour. We’re trying to come back from that a bit.…
“There are also some plant species that are outright extinct that were over-harvested, especially from the wild.”
One example is silphium, which was grown during the times of the ancient Roman empire.
“It was so popular as a spice and as a medicinal that the Romans literally harvested it to extinction. They really felt the loss of this herbal. What’s interesting is that it kind of mirrors what we’re seeing in modern times with species like vanilla, where vanilla is incredibly valuable and we really care about it so we hope that it wouldn’t go extinct but silphium shows that even if you care about a food and you know there’s a problem, sometimes you can’t quite turn that around, if you’re overharvesting it too much.”