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Preserving Food Diversity

After five days of sparkling skies over Turin, Italy, at the end of October, there was “a perturbation in the weather,” as the Italians say. And so it was under a heavy gray sky spitting icy rain, that we arrived at the huge Saturday market in Asti, and there my eyes were captured by the sunny-colored peppers of Carmagnola.

I had learned of these particular peppers at the Terra Madre conference we had just attended in Turin because they are protected by one of the Slow Food organization’s biodiversity initiatives. Safeguarding biodiversity was one of the primary themes at Terra Madre 2010.

This biennial meeting is one of the most implausible gatherings on the planet. Organized by Slow Food International, it brings together more than 6,000 farmers, cooks and local food advocates from around the world to promote solidarity and to celebrate and protect diversity — diversity of peoples, languages, traditions, foods and the plants and animals those foods come from.

Why protect the Carmangola pepper? Why protect any domesticated plant or animal? These are reasonable questions only because most of us are unaware of how crucial biodiversity is to the planet and to human existence. And few are aware of how much biodiversity has been lost in the past two or three generations.

The lost apple varieties

Illustrating that loss was a striking display that Terra Madre attendees walked past on their way to the huge arena where meetings took place. The display was simply two very long tables with a tall vertical board separating them. Everyone was quickly attracted to the side that displayed more than 100 varieties of Piedmontese apples of every size, shape and color, including heritage varieties such as buras, runsè and gamba fina.

The other side of the vertical divider looked as if it should have had a similar display, a mirror image of the brilliant display, except perhaps of apples from a different region, or perhaps varieties of a different fruit — one that had not yet been set up. A closer look, however, showed that it had indeed been set up. On display were 95 blank circles, and five apples representing the only varieties found in most stores. The apples looked forlorn, and the empty circles conveyed the sense of loss, and represented many more unseen losses all around us.

In North America, there were more than 15,000 apple varieties a couple of hundred years ago, dotting our landscape with beautifully striped and burnished skins, and teasing our taste-scape with explosive combinations of sweet and tart, citrus and spice. The majority of those varieties are now extinct. Of the few hundred varieties that do remain, most are no longer available to us — not because they don’t taste good, or were not hardy or productive — but because our industrial food system values transportability and shelf life, along with uniform color and size, over everything else. Today only 11 varieties appear on most U.S. supermarket shelves, with red delicious alone accounting for most of the apples grown and eaten in the U.S. Only a very few lucky people (I count myself among them, with two sisters growing organic heirloom apples) have ever tasted a gloria mundi, a Nutting bumpus, or a Cox’s orange pippin.

Dangerous lack of diversity

Missing taste opportunities aside, the loss of biodiversity means we are swimming in a dangerously shallow gene pool. And shallow gene pools have a hard time defending themselves against pests, diseases and climate change. Most scientists say that the Irish potato famine could have been avoided if farmers had been growing a wider variety of potatoes. Biodiversity, then, is a crucial insurance policy. When you have 15,000 varieties of apples, you have varieties adapted to many microclimates, apples resistant to fungal and bacterial diseases, apples able to withstand bitter cold and raging heat, damp soils, dry soils, clay soils, sandy soils and whatever curveballs nature or humankind might throw. To lose a species means losing a unique genetic combination of strengths forever.

According to the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, we have lost 75 percent of the genetic diversity of agricultural plants and animals since the beginning of the 20th century. Now, fewer than 30 plants feed 95 percent of the global population. Of all the livestock breeds farmed in Europe at the start of the last century, half have disappeared. Fully one-third of the remaining breeds risk extinction in the next 20 years. Meanwhile, more than 300,000 plant varieties have become extinct over the past 100 years, and the pace is accelerating, with about four varieties going extinct each day.

The endangered pepper

To protect food biodiversity and taste diversity, Slow Food developed two initiatives: the Ark of Taste and the Presidia. To protect varieties of fruits, vegetables and animals in danger of being lost forever, Slow Food brings them to public attention, encourages their production and consumption, and gives economic and manpower support when required.

Presidia have been created to preserve breeds such as the Navaho Churro sheep and various heritage breed turkeys, and plants such as the Iroquois white corn. Interestingly, the only presidium created for a variety not in danger of extinction was for the Carmagnola pepper. The pepper was being grown only for the canned food industry, and so, though not in danger of disappearing, it was no longer part of the traditional meals of northern Italy, where it had been grown and eaten for hundreds of years.the lack of biodiversity in apples is evident in display

Like all peppers, it had come back to the Old World with the Spaniards, and soon took root throughout Europe, where different varieties, hot and sweet, large and small, were developed. The pepper was introduced to Carmagnola in the early 20th century and did so well that special dishes were developed to showcase it.

After World War II, the notion of industrial efficiency arrived, and the peppers soon were grown industrially for the canning industry. The presidium for the Carmagnola pepper was established to create a new market that would make the pepper once again part of people’s daily lives. To meet the demand from that new market, a consortium of farmers was launched.

Today about 50 farmers grow and cooperatively market four varieties of Carmagnola peppers: Quadrato, a squat cube-like four-cornered variety; tomaticot, a hybrid shaped like a tomato; the heart-shaped trottola, and the elongated corno or lungo. All of the Carmagnola peppers have thick, sweet, juicy flesh, and the flavors actually improve with storage. They can be eaten raw or flame-roasted, and are excellent packed in oil, pickled in vinegar, or preserved in grape pomace, according to a traditional Piedmontese recipe. But the Carmagnola peppers reach their apotheosis when served with the traditional garlic and anchovy bagna càuda (literally “warm bath”).

In the words of Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, “In a world of increasing globalization and environmental degradation, management of its most precious living resource, biological diversity, is one of the most important and critical challenges facing humankind today.”

And so I was only doing my duty as a concerned citizen of the world when I ordered the Carmagnola pepper in bagna càuda at the Ristorante Antico Castello built into the castle walls at the top of Moncalvo in the beautiful vineyard covered hills of Piedmont.

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Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

Photos, from top:
More than 100 Piedmontese apple varieties — of every size, shape, color and taste — greet attendees at the 2010 Terra Madre conference.
Only five varieties of apples are commonly available in grocery stores — those that have uniform size, shape, color and long shelf life.
Credit: Terra Brockman


Zester Daily contributor Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, "The Seasons on Henry's Farm," now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.