My favorite food writer is Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules, among other books. Pollan has a very readable style and is able to take really dense, scientific material and make it engaging and understandable for public consumption.
As an example, check out this excerpt from In Defense of Food. I find this particular statistic shocking and telling, and it has formed my basis of much of my dietary thinking since I read it.
… corn contributes 554 calories a day to America’s per capita food supply and soy another 257. Add wheat (768 calories) and rice (91) and you can see there isn’t a whole lot of room left in the American stomach for any other foods.
Today these four crops account for two thirds of the calories we eat. When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some eighty thousand edible species, and that three thousand of these have been in widespread use, this represents a radical simplification of the human diet. Why should this concern us?
Because humans are omnivores, requiring somewhere between fifty and a hundred different chemical compounds and elements in order to be healthy. It’s hard to believe we’re getting everything we need from a diet consisting largely of processed corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat.
So, scientists think that throughout human history, there have been something like 80 thousand edible species, with about 3000 of these being widely consumed by humans.
Fast-forward to today and we have four highly-engineered crops (corn, soy, wheat, and rice) that account for over 2/3 of the calories we eat!
Does anyone see a problem here?
Let me appeal to another of my favorite writers to shed some light on the importance of this quote – polymath, Steven Jay Gould. In his book, Full House, Gould writes about how diversity is an important indicator of the viability of any organic system. Two of Gould’s most interesting examples include dinosaurs and professional baseball.
With respect to dinosaurs, Gould shows that reduction in biodiversity marked the onset of the collapse of the entire ecological system and eventual extinction. With respect to baseball, he discusses how adjustment of the rules over time in order to balance the relative power of the pitcher and the batter, has resulted in loss of diversity in the skillsets of the athletes – and the result is the loss of the potential for surprising excellence (like a .600 hitter for instance) to arise.
Back to Pollan’s quote – we have reduced the diversity of our diet from 80 thousand (or even the more conservative 3000) species to the four species that happen to be the best in the world at turning sunlight into sugar, and we wonder why we are beset with metabolic and autoimmune disorders like obesity and diabetes and arthritis.
We are living the Omnivore’s Dilemma, awash in calories but devoid of nutrient diversity!