Eating to Extinction

The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them

By Dan Saladino
Eating to Extinction book cover. It has many small images of different types of food over a tan background.
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The globalized food system of modern times relies on a surprisingly small number of plants, which we are quickly eating to extinction.

Pretty much anywhere you go, you will find the same varieties of bananas, wheat, tomatoes, and so on. This is great for world travelers who want access to familiar foods, but there are drawbacks.

Such dependence on low diversity puts humanity’s staple crops at a higher risk of disease and climate effects. Because of this, the indirect effects of climate change will include food shortages on a global scale.

In addition to reducing the strength of our food system, the low variety of foods we eat is not good for our health. Wild foods are richer in nutrients and good bacteria. The biodiversity of our internal microbiomes reflects the biodiversity of our food, which reflects the biodiversity of our planet.

How did we get the food system we have today, and what should the future of our food look like? How do we protect our food from eating to extinction?

Main Points

History of the Modern Food System

Developments in agriculture allowed humans to cultivate an abundance of food. They found the crops that grew the fastest and easiest, which would support the rapid growth of their communities. They cultivated these, rapidly growing populations and expanding settlements.

World War II reinforced this trend, when prosperous times necessitated agricultural reinvention. Scientists found what techniques and species worked to produce the most food the quickest, and agricultural practices doubled down on those to expand the industry.

Technology had its role to play. The establishment of unbroken cold chains allowed the fruit trade to globalize. The invention of pasteurization allowed humans to sanitize milk and preserve it long enough to be shipped, but the practice also killed many of the beneficial microbes in the fresh milk. These good bacteria are healthy for us, and create many of the exciting flavors that can be found in small-batch local cheese production.

The decline in the diversity of our food, and the fact that so many foods have become endangered, didn’t happen by accident: it is an entirely human-made process. The biggest loss of crop diversity came in the decades that followed the Second World War when, in an attempt to save millions from starvation, crop scientists found ways to produce grains such as rice and wheat on a phenomenal scale. To grow the extra food the world desperately needed diversity was sacrificed, as thousands of traditional varieties were replaced by a small number of new super-productive ones. These plants were designed to grow quickly and produce lots more grain. The strategy that ensured this – more agrochemicals, more irrigation, plus new genetics – came to be known as the ‘Green Revolution’. And it worked spectacularly well, at least to begin with.

Food Homogeneity

Even the outward appearance of diversity is not always true when you dig into the details. All commercial citrus fruits are descendents of three parents: the mandarin, pomelo, and citron. These fruits, when hybridized, create oranges, limes, lemons, and grapefruit, which are commercially available around the world.

Another example is the Brassica group, or cruciferous vegetables. The genus Brassica includes broccoli, bok choy, turnip, mustard, and more. A single species, Brassica oleracea, produces cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts (and more less commonly known produce), produced by breeding to enhance different parts of the plant.

Homogeneity extends to livestock as well. Domesticated animals include mainly the ‘big five’: sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and chickens.

Food Diversity at Risk

The homogeneous system worked well for a while, but our modern collective society is now realizing the threat it poses to our health and the health of the planet. We need to find a way to move back to locally-produced, regionally-specific foods.

Dan Saladino wants to help us get there by telling the incredible stories of some wild foods that are still in existence. These are foods we need to work to save before they go extinct. He weaves the narrative through ten categories of food: wild, cereal, vegetable, meat, the sea, fruit, cheese, alcohol, stimulants, and sweet.

Each category contains a few examples of foods at risk of extinction. And each of those has a fascinating history. Many are alive only because of the dedicated work of a small number of individuals.

Every item has a home. Every item has a story— the golden years, and its current status. We aren’t eating these unique, regional foods as much as we should, and they are threatened with extinction because of it. Saladino makes you appreciate the food you have while you can get it.

I won’t spoil the stories here. You’ll just have to read it for yourself.

Over millennia, food, cooking and eating became the most powerful expression of the human imagination. So, when a food becomes endangered, another seed lost, another skill forgotten, it is worth remembering the epic story of how they got here.

Threats to Human Health and the Environment

Wild foods provide most of the nutrients in diets today. People who do not have access to affordable and healthy food suffer from poor nutrition. Aboriginal people in Australia have shorter life expectancies than non-indigenous people, in large part because this problem. Aboriginal diets have become colonized out of necessity, when the only affordable option is McDonalds. The same thing is happening in America, where the highest rates of type 2 diabetes exist on reservations.

Some indigenous communities are creating garden projects to grow traditional foods, reclaiming their identities through the food they eat. Cultures ravaged by war are keeping their foods alive in their adoptive countries until they can return home and continue to celebrate their heritage.

Besides harming human health, our current practices are also harming the planet. Since I’m a marine biologist, I’m going to talk about the ocean. We are overfishing many fish populations, but it is still possible for them to recover. Proper political will can put the right management policies in place to repair these valuable ecosystems. It will take time and commitment, but it is still possible.

Where Should We Go From Here?

I am not proposing the endangered foods and drinks featured here (and thousands of others out there) could provide the menu for our future. Most of them will (and should) only ever feed the communities that produce or harvest them. But I do believe that the food system we need – and which the planet needs – is one in which these foods can have a place and are no longer at risk of extinction. Our food system needs to embrace all forms of diversity: biological, cultural, dietary and economic.

We need to look to the past to consider how to shape our future. We need to embrace local varietals. If you live in the US, for example, maybe reconsider your imported mangos. We need to empower communities to produce their own healthy food. We need to manage our natural resources properly so they can continue to be a sustainable food source.

The Green Revolution got us where we are today, providing prosperity for decades. Now the strategies we have come to rely on are no longer appropriate. But just as we innovated back then, so we can innovate today and find a way to celebrate the diversity of food in our locale.

We humans can get things wrong, but we can make things right too.


  • We milked industrial agriculture to feed prosperous years
  • Now, our food is harming ourselves and the planet, and is itself at risk under climate change
  • Rebuilding our food system from the ground up is possible and necessary
  • There are many amazing regional foods that should be celebrated

What you can do: learn your local foods and build your diet around them. Read Eating to Extinction and The Omnivore’s Dilemma for ideas!

Want to read more? Find Eating to Extinction here: Bookshop

The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you click the link and purchase the item, I may receive a small commission. There is no extra cost to you and it allows me to spend more time writing content like this.

You might also like my notes on:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Why Sharks Matter by David Shiffman, PhD

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel