Above the din of the enthusiastic multitude of Green Festival attendees in San Francisco, renowned author, ethnobotanist, food preservationist, and historian Gary Paul Nabhan gave a whirlwind tour of topics with global, regional, and personal scope.
Nabhan started with a big-picture perspective. The current and future food crises, he said, are closely linked with the energy and water crises. At the same time that we are depleting our planet’s non-renewable fossil fuel supply, we are also draining ancient water sources much faster than they can be refilled. Nabhan called this “fossil water” to highlight that some groundwater sources, like the Ogallala aquifer in the American southern plains, were slowly filled across the span of many millennia.
One of the causes of this is agribusiness’s focus on forcing crops into places where they don’t belong. Importing a water-hungry plant into an arid climate leads to a reliance on artificial irrigation, and often other imported inputs like chemical fertilizers. As our water and energy supplies diminish, he said, it is time to start choosing plants and animals that are place-appropriate.
To do that, we need to reconnect with local knowledge by listening to the biological wisdom of place-based heritage, and to the cultural wisdom in local and traditional farming, fishing, foraging, and ranching practices. In other words, learn lessons from nature and look to the past to guide our future.
Stepping back a half century but maintaining a global view, Nabhan talked about his latest book, “Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine.” The book tells the story of one of the world’s greatest ‘plant explorers’ and ‘food geographers.’ Visiting tens of countries and collecting countless samples, Vavilov helped create a remarkable seed bank and genetics institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersberg) in the Soviet Union and identified food ‘hot spots’ around the world. These hot spots, which include meso-America, the upper Andes, and the Mediterranean, account for a disproportionate number of important foods. Vavilov was caught up in Stalin’s purges (perhaps as a scapegoat for the massive famines partially caused by Stalin’s collectivization program) and met his end in a Soviet gulag. His staff at the institute also had a tough time, with many of them dying of starvation while heroically protecting the seed bank from desperately hungry Soviets during the siege of Leningrad in 1941 and 1942. You can hear more about Nabhan’s book in his interview on The Splendid Table (it’s also available via iTunes and other podcasting software). In addition, a recent article in the New Yorker includes part of the Vavilov seed bank story.
Returning to the present, Nabhan talked a bit about one of his passions: protecting America’s native and heritage foods. As editor of “Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods,” Nabhan has a deep understanding of the treasure-trove of food that lies within the continent but has been mostly overlooked in agribusiness’s rush to cheap food and any cost.
Nabhan gave a practical example of why heritage foods are important. For centuries, Navajo shepherds have been raising the Navajo-Churro sheep, an animal that was brought to the Southwest by the Spanish several hundred years ago and is adapted to the arid climate of the region. (Another example of a sheep that does well in the Southwest is the Dorper sheep, which was described by Rachel Cole for the Ethicurean.) A few years ago, the sheep ranchers were getting about 35 to 50 cents per pound for the meat and about 5 cents per pound for the wool. Today, they get $6 to $8 per pound for the meat and a better price for the wool. The local Slow Food group was partially responsible for this, by connecting ranchers with local restaurants.
Near the end of the talk, Nabhan presented an idea for a new national holiday, called the “American Heritage Picnic,” to celebrate those who grow our food and recognize native foods. It has been celebrated in a few regions, but not California as far as I know. These picnics would bring people together to celebrate the heritage foods of the region while also paying tribute to those who produce our food.
When I suggested this idea to a friend just before Thanksgiving, she scoffed and said, “We already have that holiday. It’s called Thanksgiving.” I had to disagree, primarily because the eating traditions of Thanksgiving are so rigid — nearly every table is adorned with a turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. This national menu prevents much exploration into regional foods like local fish, regionally-appropriate livestock, or rare local fruits. In addition, late November is hardly the best time of year to have a national holiday around locally grown foods. So perhaps we can keep Thanksgiving as it is, and just add a new holiday in the late summer.
I think that many of us would agree that our nation needs to give more appreciation to those who grow, harvest, process, and cook our food, while also learning more about each of our region’s heritage foods.