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Of Moulds and Men

Recently appeared in Resurgence Magazine, by: Gary Paul Nabhan

Biodiversity is not just “out there” – in the rainforests, oceans and wetlands – it is here, on our plates.

I DID NOT know it by such lofty terms as food biodiversity back them, but as a child in a household of Lebanese immigrants to America, I viscerally knew that we had items in our backyard, cupboard, pantry and refrigerator that our neighbours did not. The yoghurt or lebna made by my aunts was more viscous, more bitingly sour and easier on my stomach than the flavoured, sweetened, pasteurised, homogenised ghost of yoghurt in American grocery stores. The vine leaves we picked from the sand dunes around our home were selected for a particular shape of leaves – their ‘female’ lobes were more rounded and cohesive – than those seen in Greek or Jewish delicatessens. The anise-flavored arak bootlegged by my uncles made the mass-produced ouzo from the liquor store pale by comparison.

From my earliest visits to other households in America, Mexico, Ecuador, Italy and Oman, it became obvious that each ethnicity – indigenous, immigrant or refugee – sampled, named, sustained and savoured its own slice of the planet’s biodiversity on its own peculiar terms.

And yet, even today, most of those who describe themselves as conservationists seem to ignore the diversity of plants, animals and microbes that we carry with us from the farm to the table. For them, biodiversity is always ‘out there’ – in the rainforests, oceans, or wetlands. By defining it as such, they may be neglecting or even damaging the food biodiversity accessible in our fields and kitchens and even in our guts: bacteria, moulds, yeasts and fungi. But ignore this biodiversity and it will disappear. When we purchase cheese made with bioengineered rennets, or allow antibiotics to be used upon the cows from which we obtain our milk for making homemade cheeses, we may inadvertently be impoverishing the microbial biodiversity endemic to our own internal ecosystem: our guts.

The biodiversity in our fermenting vats, pickle jars, beer kegs and wine cellars may at first seem trivial to a classically-trained biologist who is trained to count bird species in the canopy of a tropical forest, or shellfish in an estuary. And yet, such biodiversity has been deemed important enough to be inventoried on a national scale by Ethiopia’s Institute of Biodiversity Conservation in Addis Ababa. Once only a seedbank, this institute now has amassed embryo and semen collections from the livestock breeds found from the highland to the bottom of the Nile Gorge, as well as more than four hundred different microbial cultures from kitchens across the country.

Along the steep elevational gradients one commonly travels in old Abyssinia, cooks have kept different locally-adapted microbial cultures used to ferment ground teff flour into enjera batter; different yeasts for making beers and wines from endemic fruits and grains abound. Each may have its own name in Amharic dialects that dominate the highlands, or in the dozen other minority languages found in the southern Ethiopian lowlands.

Enjera, cheese, yoghurt, pickles and arak are not the only foods and beverages whose flavours are mediated by microbial diversity. Consider quorns and the soy-based tempehs that require fungi; the sausages and pu-erh tea leaves fermented by moulds; the buttermilks, sourdough breads, kefirs, sour creams and beers. Particular strains of these microbial cultures belong to particular human cultures; they are passed down from hand to hand, vat to vat, barrel to barrel over generations. They are the mutualists that accompany certain vegetables, grains or milks we keep, but they have co-evolved with us just as much as they’ve co-evolved with our cultivated flora and fauna.

IN THIS TIME when climate change is reeling out of control, when antibiotics and laboratory-derived chemicals are embedded in most foods found in supermarkets and fast food restaurants, we might want to take just a few little steps toward keeping the food microbes which have nurtured us since birth, joining our mother’s milk as our nourishment earlier than anything else in our diets. But the trouble is, they seem invisible to the rational mind, so how can we conserve something we hardly see… Unless of course, we also honour our sense of taste, texture and smell, as much as we honour our runaway brains.

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Gary Paul Nabhan is founder and facilitator of the Renewing Americas Food Traditions collaborative based at Slow Food USA, and author of the forthcoming book, Where Our Food Comes From from Island Press. See www.garynabhan.com

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