Taste, Terroir and Food Security

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Anchorage 2/21/17 – A team of researchers in China and at the University of Florida announced a breakthrough discovery about the genetics of the world’s “highest value fruit and vegetable crop” – tomatoes. It made the cover of “Science” magazine. They have discovered the genes that make the flavors of heirloom tomato strains so much better than the commercial product.

Mind you, they’re not necessarily suggesting genetic engineering to restore the flavor – no “frankenmato” to stir up the concerns of the anti-GMO crowd – but rather a way of testing cultivars for these characteristics so they can be bred into existing varieties in hopes of attaining the desirable yield, cosmetic, storage, pest resistance, and other characteristics along with the flavor.

But still, it does beg the question a bit, doesn’t it? I mean, if tomatoes that taste better already exist, shouldn’t we maybe consider ways to just use them instead? If the heirloom tomatoes don’t store and transport so well, then shouldn’t we maybe consider sourcing our tomatoes closer to home? And from a biodiversity perspective, isn’t it better to keep a more diverse gene pool in cultivation?

Meanwhile two of the biggest international food corporations, Kraft Heinz and Unilever, are in a potential merger battle because overall their business is down due to changing consumer preference. And Whole Foods faces a rebellion in its board of directors because its business, which consists largely of products that do not come from the likes of Kraft Heinz or Unilever, is likewise down, as its near monopoly diminishes, with mainstream retailers moving into all sorts of “organic,” “artisan,” “boutique,” and even local, food, again due to changing consumer preference.

It’s almost as if we have two different lenses through which we can look at these issues – through either one, we see a set of problems, but maybe one set of problems is preferable.

One lens shows us familiar difficulties – problems faced by agribusiness in terms of the need for more seedstock breeding to some day get a tomato that will improve the lives of all of us. and problems faced by investors who can’t even profitably diversify from the food corporations to the greener alternative of Whole Foods but maybe the marketplace will someday boil things down to better choices that will eventually get reflected in one or another of the mutual funds where so much capital is tied up these days.

Through the other lens, we see an entirely different picture in which consumers are already pointing out the best direction to proceed and the problems consist of really interesting challenges, such as finding ways to bring food sourcing closer with better land use practices, more innovative investment and distribution systems for local food production, more seasonal awareness, cultivar diversity, and a growing ability to distinguish the very taste of a place in the food it uniquely is capable of producing its “terroir.” I prefer this view.

Think of the subsistence practices of indigenous peoples as the epicenter of this locovore movement, then let it branch out to regional cultural practices and traditions, cultivars, livestock feeds, and on to the botanicals contained in condiments and spirits, and expand outwards to the growing understanding of what spots on earth have given rise to what edible species and hence should have the greatest priority for conservation, because they still contain the treasure house of the genetic diversity that brought this food into being, and then even more expansively to a growing understanding of how the earth’s forces all fit together – the way a soil might arrive by wind, for instance, or stream, or volcano or guano, and provide habitat favored by most particular microbiota perhaps unique to that place. It all leads toward food security, and a growing number food consumers are already trying to point the way.

Some will say that the locovore movement is an elitist fad, but I think it has already gone on longer than any fad, and it would be a hell of a lot less elitist if people’s choices were not constrained by severe economic forces and lack of education.

 

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