“I lived in New York City, got my graduate degree in San Francisco…I lived in bubbles of virtuosity, beauty, deliciousness. I moved to Kansas and lived beside people who grew industrial crops, who were engaged with and supported conventional agriculture.
I started to understand the complexity of growing food and began to realize that it’s important to express those complexities and not demonize others. Their hopes and dreams are bound up in ours.”
– Simran Sethi
Simran Sethi is a journalist and educator whose work focuses on the intersection of food, sustainability and social change. She was the host of the 2013-2014 PBS QUEST series on science and sustainability and was also the environmental correspondent for NBC News. Named a “top 10 eco-hero of the planet” by the U.K.’s Independent, Simran has recently authored Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.
The UC Food Observer loves books; they are nearly as essential to her as food. And this is one of the best books I’ve read this year – or any year. It’s a difficult book to characterize, but let’s just share the premise: Sustainability hero/journalist Simran Sethi journeys to six continents to find “delicious and endangered tastes.” She investigates and reports on the loss of biodiversity and shares the stories of those who are working hard to save (or bring back) foods that we love. She does this through the lens of a handful of foods many of us love: bread, wine, chocolate, coffee and beer and one food I have personally never tasted (octopus).
This book is full of interesting facts, practical information and great stories. For example, I learned about taste buds and how to create a chocolate tasting. The book also connects the past to the present and shares important cultural information. I learned about the role that beer played in Sumerian culture, among other things. It’s a perfect read for those whose interests are far-reaching.
There is an incredibly spiritual aspect to the book, as well. While she maps the geography of food, Simran has also mapped the geography of the heart. She describes being humbled by a growing awareness of the complexity of the food system. “Everyone wants a good life,” she writes. “In order to achieve it, we all have to make trade-offs.” Things are not black and white. Instead of falling into a “well of despair” for that which is irretrievably lost, Simran says this: “We fight for the other 10 percent, for the biodiversity we can save.”
A must read.
Q: You mention in your book that the dynamics surrounding coffee production taught you to “soften” your stance and be more flexible. There’s a lot to learn from what you wrote. Can you tell us more?
Simran: I was coming off learning a lot more about the application of pesticides in coffee production. And I realized that there are constraints and challenges that farmers face that we’re likely not aware of. We want things to be completely virtuous for the farmer and the land when we demand organic coffee. But for the farmer, coffee production can turn into a zero sum game. I learned that it’s about understanding people’s predicaments. Not advocating for no measures, but we must recognize that in our desire to do as good as we can, there are consequences to that as well, and they are probably unintended.
I lived in New York City, got my graduate degree in San Francisco…I lived in bubbles of virtuosity, beauty, deliciousness. I moved to Kansas and lived beside people who grew industrial crops, who were engaged with and supported conventional agriculture.
I started to understand the complexity of growing food and began to realize that it’s important to express those complexities and not demonize others. Their hopes and dreams are bound up in ours.
It’s been a humbling experience and has changed how I approach people. I realize that most things are not good or bad but that there are degrees of improvement that can be made. It’s so important to sit down and talk to one another. Lots of what has happened has translated into shame and anger for farmers.
Q: You included a quote from Charles Godfray of the British Ecological Society: “If we fail on food we fail on everything.” What food policy changes would you make if you could?
Simran: I’d start with looking at the constraints that farmers are facing due to the very limited variety of seeds that are available. This goes back to diversity and having greater choice. Because of monopolies, about 70% of commercialized seed is owned by four companies. To turn food into another monopoly is a real disservice. Food is something we need to live; it holds our history and identity. It’s not a widget that we produce. We shouldn’t consider food as a commodity and neither should we think of the business model for food as just a money-making venture. We’ve driven down the price of food so much that we have distorted everything. The drive to the bottom is making us sicker and limiting us and our choices. We can do better than this.