Interview with Simran Sethi, Author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate

Simran Sethi headshot

Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist who’s spent decades teaching the world about the environment and social change. Her latest venture? Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love is a wake-up call that shows us how we’re slowly losing all of our favorite foods. We sat down with this real-life superhero to learn about her journey in writing this book.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you to write Bread, Wine, Chocolate?

Simran Sethi: I was in Italy doing research for a fellowship I’d been nominated for, and I was looking at genetically engineered foods, more commonly known as GMOs, and started to interview scientists and they said, well, that’s a concern in your country but what we’re really worried about is genetic erosion and the loss of agricultural biodiversity. And I had been working in environmental journalism for over a decade, and increasingly funneling all my work, my teaching at the University of Kansas and all my reporting through food because it was what I cared about most: food and farming. You know, it felt so intimate. And I thought to myself – how did I not know about this? I mean, I’ve heard of endangered species but I didn’t realize our foods were endangered. So that’s really where this started, you know, with the awareness that we are losing diversity in every component that makes food and agriculture possible.

SHY: If you could have the reader take away just one lesson from this book, what would it be?

SS: It would be to eat with curiosity, mindfulness and gratitude.

SHY: Can you elaborate?

SS: I start off the book with a poem by Derek Walcott, and the poem ends with the phrase, “Feast on your life.” I feel that what we do to food and what we do to our ecosystem is a real reflection of how we’re treating ourselves and each other. And for me, it was a real turning point to understand we were losing something precious about diversity in food, and the taste of different places by demanding this kind of cookie cutter agricultural system and foods that we eat. So to kind of come to the conclusion or the awareness, I should say, that 3/4ths of our food come from just 12 plants and 5 animal species, when it looks like when we go to the supermarket that there’s tons of choice, was a real awakening for me. But 90%, for example, of the dairy products that we see, whether it’s ice cream or milk or yogurt or sour cream or what have you, all come from one cow, you know? That’s 9-0 percent. And that notion of kind of creating a food system where we are investing everything in just a few varieties is really careless. So I think the way that we can participate in solving this problem, and when I say we I mean we the eaters, is to really savor the diversity and the differences in food. And that’s something that requires us to pay attention, first and foremost, and I go through how our senses work, and I have tasting guides in every chapter about how to taste beer and bread and coffee and chocolate and wine. And that was really, with the idea that like there’s so much that we don’t know. I thought it was just, put food in mouth, chew, swallow, say good or bad, you know. But there’s all these complex forces that kind of conspire to make us cherish our food or not. What I’ve found is by paying attention and being more grateful, I have had a greater awareness and understanding of food and also a greater appreciation for all the hands that it takes to get from wherever it comes from to me.

SHY: What’s the cheapest way to support biodiversity?

SS: Craft beer, which I talk about, I dedicate a whole chapter in the book to beer. You know, craft beer outsells Bud Light in the United States and it’s not that expensive. Turning towards the independent roaster instead of choosing maybe a Starbucks, and asking what the origin is. You know, I interviewed a scientist, the team, the lead scientist who had done research analyzing 50 years of data on what 98% of the world eats. And he and his colleagues coined what they call the Global Standard Diet, which is that we as a world increasingly eat wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and palm oil. And what he said to me was that anything outside of that handful of foods is a revolutionary act. So the continuum here of really changing the loss or stemming the loss of agricultural biodiversity is a pivot in the grocery store towards olive oil. He actually said eating olive oil is now a revolutionary act. Or taking out that more expensive chocolate. Or asking about the origin of your wine. Or choosing a local beer. Like, these things are not arduous. And I think the argument is often, like, well, this is all we can afford to eat. And to that point, I would say, we are throwing 40% of our food away here in the United States. We currently grow 1.5 times the amount of food that’s required for the population on the planet. And we’re now suffering more deaths globally from overweight and obesity than from people being underweight. So, hunger is a very real issue, even for those who are obese or overweight, we’re all malnourished. And the question for me is, what kind of quality of life do we want to have? And what kind of quality of food do we want to put in our bodies? And what kind of decisions do we want to make that lead to us having a more delicious life, to feasting on our lives but also to ensuring that we have diverse, delicious foods now and in the future?

SHY: Why did you include the science of taste and smell and how we perceive these things in the book?

SS: Well, because I wanted to empower people to make informed decisions. And I think a lot of books are prescriptive in this sense, or a lot of edicts from food or environmental people or what have you, like, eat organic! You know? Yes GMO, No GMO! I see very sort of overly simplistic tips. And I myself have given tips over the course of my career. But what I realized, pretty early on was, I just wanted to provide enough information for people to make the decisions that made the most sense for them. So I talk about, in the book, the way our senses work. So we understand how taste, flavor really would be the more accurate term, comes together. You know, I knew that it largely happened in my nose and my mouth but I didn’t realize that something like the weight of the bowl or the sound of of a chip crunching would have an impact on how I would experience food. Nor did I realize that there was a way to really taste and understand these foods. I think a lot of times, you know, the solutions are like, well, write your elected official or just change something. And I could have easily written a book saying these are biodiverse foods! And be done with it, you know? But that doesn’t really give people any tools to make these changes or to really even understand why those changes make sense for them. I explain in the book, when I was in Australia, I went to my first coffee tasting. I had just moved there from Italy so I was very familiar with cappuccini and lattes but that was kind of the level of my sophistication. And I thought I was pretty knowledgeable. And then the head roaster said, do you taste the hints of jasmine in the coffee? I’m like, what are you talking about, man? Jasmine? I just couldn’t find it. And what I wanted to do was give people maps so they could find the deliciousness in their food. So they could understand how our senses: smell, taste, touch, sight and sound, come together to inform how we love what we love. And then, make the decisions you want to make. But at least they’ll be informed ones.

SHY: In the book, you talk about the standard American diet and how your family came here from India – so your culinary experience in the States was a little bit different. Would you say that most people in the United States don’t really appreciate food?

SS: No, I wouldn’t say that at all. I was born in Germany. We immigrated to the United States from Germany, but I am of Indian origin. And I think it’s just not something we pay attention to. A lot of us. You know, there’s these polarized views where it’s like hyper-attention paid, you know, if you’re like a fancy foodie, or you’re just shoveling food in your mouth as you’re going through the drive-thru at McDonald’s. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of discourse or conversation about everyone in between. And that includes me, on both sides of that continuum at certain moments in my life. So I’d never ever say that people don’t care, but what I’ve learned through the work that I’ve done is that there’s only so much we can care about at once. And what I wanted to help people understand was this is a very real concern. You know? This loss of diversity will impact the foods that we eat now and in the future. And there are conservationists working hard to save the diversity in food. We say that in ex situ collections like seed banks, we save all kinds of material. We save grapevines, we save honey bee sperm, you know, we also save varieties, diverse varieties, in situ, in the wild, in situ is Latin for in place. And these places are where the wild relatives of crops grow as well. But these places are always under threat of deforestation. And yet there’s only so much you can put in a seed bank. So we save things by growing them, right? In situ conservation on farm. In place conservation on farm. What a lot of people might experience through like an heirloom tomato at a farmer’s market in the summertime. But that quality applies to all foods. There is a taste of place in all foods, and there are beautiful, precious varieties of all foods, and you know, conservationists have largely left us out of the equation. The eaters. And so what I wanted to do was really give us an opportunity to participate in the solutions to this problem.

SHY: Why did you choose these specific foods to focus on?

SS: So, no nutritionist would say, bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer was what we need to hold up the world and feed the planet. But after doing research in Rome, I went on a very brief cleanse to just kind of clean some of the wine and all the delicious food out of my system. And I ended up interviewing a chocolate maker who had been a botanist before he became a chocolate maker. And I went to the chocolate factory and I was being very very virtuous and he’s like, here, do you want some drinking chocolate? And I said no no no, just water. Hey, we’re trying out a new bar, do you want to try some, it’s all over the conference room table, and I said, no, no, I’m not hungry. So I’m super-virtuous in this moment. And then we go into the factory and there’s a machine that makes the chocolate fall down into a liquid again. And that moment of smelling that melting chocolate and being in that warm room, I just reached out for that machine. And I realized, you know, chocolate had been my every birthday cake. It had been my wedding cake, and it’s what got me through my divorce. And that my life staples were different than corn and rice and potatoes. Because frankly, I don’t eat that much corn. I don’t think I’d miss it if it was gone. But chocolate? Every day. Coffee sets the tone of every single day of my adult life. More constant than a job, than a husband, than a lover, coffee’s been there for me every morning. You know? So these were the things I wanted to talk about. Wheat is a dietary staple, and I talk about it through the chapter on bread, but I wanted to talk about foods that were celebratory and foods that we had memories, long memories of. Foods that helped mend broken hearts and helped wake us up in the morning. And for me, you know, that was bread and wine and chocolate and coffee and you know, what I also say in the book is even if you’re a vegan teetotaler, this is for you, because map my love onto what you love because your foods are being affected too.

SHY: So many environmental books focus on why you shouldn’t eat meat and the impact that meat has on the whole world. I thought it was interesting that you didn’t include that in the book. 

SS: No, because there is data that shows that there is a place for meat consumption in our food system and in our diets. And I am not someone who believes that the only way to save the planet is to be meatless, and there’s plenty of data that backs that up. So I’m not here to judge anybody’s decisions. I’m here to provide information that will help people make informed decisions so they feel empowered to do what’s right for themselves and their families.

SHY: You talk about in your book a little bit about GMOs, but what are your opinions on it? 

SS: Well, my book does not really detail the benefits or drawbacks of genetically engineered foods. It explains what they are, because a lot of people don’t really know what they are. So I explain what recombinant DNA technology is all about. And the bigger challenge that we are facing in our food system isn’t about simply genetically engineered food or seeds. It is about the fact that 70% of commercialized seeds are owned by 4 companies. And so what we are facing now is a real monopoly on the building blocks of not only food but pharmaceuticals, like medicine, fodder for animal feed, fiber that’s used in textiles like clothing and for homes. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about companies owning seeds and that these companies are being monopolies. So that’s a growing concern for everybody, no matter where you fall on the GMO continuum, this is a challenge. And what we’re also finding is a challenge, again, no matter where you fall on this continuum, is the creation of super pests and super weeds. And anybody who knows anything about agriculture kind of knows that whenever you grow things in monoculture, whenever you grow things without any diversity, you’re going to end up with a problem at some point, you know? But we still persist in growing things this way, whether it’s GMO corn, or a hybrid wheat. We’re growing fields and fields of these things without any diversity, and that means one pest, one disease can wipe all that stuff out. And that’s what we’re seeing right now with the Cavendish banana, which is in the paper a lot, and I talked about this on Public Radio International last week. When you grow only one version of something, and then that one version gets triggered with whatever risk it’s facing, it all goes away. So those are the problems that I really want people to start thinking about.

SHY: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with food and love and how the food got you through the heartbreak?

SS: What I will say is that I think that’s universal. It’s not specific to me. That food and drink help heal us, and they also can harm us. And for me, what I really wanted to help people touch was that place of food and memory. And of food as being something that was bigger than just what you shoved in your mouth and considered a calorie. And so, I really wanted to talk about the longer story, and the way it tied into my life in these more intimate ways. For me, the act of eating by myself in Peru and consuming a plate of octopus was a moment when I realized that I was connected to the whole world. You know? And after suffering heartbreak and realizing, like, feeling alone, you know, I realized that I was never alone. That the whole world showed up on my plate. And that was a very powerful moment for me. And that’s the same thing we have the opportunity to realize every single morning. Whether you’re drinking tea or coffee or juice or milk, it doesn’t matter. Every single one of those things passed through many hands and many environmental conditions to get to you. And it starts right there. Like, from that moment of consumption, throughout our entire day, we are connected to the entire world. And by recognizing that interconnection, then we can, I think, better understand why we need to care for each other and reach across the world to really support something like biodiversity. We’re not going to feel it here in America. Coffee doesn’t grow in America, you know? But if we drink it every day right? So I’m going to just use it as an example. So we don’t feel acute pain. We’re shielded from the price volatility. But it’s happening in real time. And if I can paint the picture of what some of those people are going through and who they are, if I can give them names, and if I can tell you where they live and how they live, then my hope is that they’ll become part of your consciousness. You know? Either directly or indirectly. And that you’ll start to make decisions that hold them in your heart. You know, that we will all start to. I can only speak for myself. Once I learned about them, I did. It did matter to me. And it did start to change the way I moved in the world and the way I ate food. And, you know, I’m sharing my experience, and we’ll see if it has an impact on someone else as well.

SHY: What’s the most important lesson you learned in writing this book?

SS: The most important lesson I definitely learned was just how much work went into getting me my life staples. And I’ll go back to coffee for a second, because it took a ridiculous amount of time to go a distance that should have taken…I mean, in the United States, it would have taken about 2 hours. It’s about 120 miles. And it took us almost 7 and a half hours. And to hear the farmers in Ethiopia say, we have beautiful coffee. We don’t have roads. You know? And they don’t have constant electricity. And they don’t have access to constant water. I realized, oh my gosh, this coffee is a miracle. I cannot believe this coffee got from Ethiopia all the way to America into my cup and it’s so awesome. And that awe, that reverence, I’ve never had that before. I didn’t have it until I got to go to the places where these things actually came from. The deep birthplaces of coffee and of chocolate, and started to understand what it meant to keep these things going, and what it took. And so I would say that’s the deepest lesson. I have a lot more gratitude for what goes in my mouth and I have a lot more, I guess, connectivity to the fact that I wouldn’t have any of the things that I love were it not for the world.

SHY: What food would you miss the most if it disappeared?

SS: Chocolate.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

SS: What is my real-life superpower? I guess maybe being able to see into the future just a little bit. To talk about some issues that are maybe not right in people’s sightline immediately but become that way. So I’ll use the example of the book. I started writing this book 5 years ago. I’m definitely not the first person to write about agricultural biodiversity, but you know, the book came out like a month ago, and in the last week we’ve been talking about how Cavendish bananas might go extinct, you know? So I think that was a little bit of a superpower on my part. That I was able to think about the issues that were going to be ahead that we needed to start to think about and worry about.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

SS: My real-life superhero…there’s just so many I’m trying to narrow it down to one. I’m going to say a collective of people and that is those farmers in Ethiopia that aren’t getting compensated to save all these diverse varieties of coffee, but they do it anyhow. They’re my superheroes. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have this delicious coffee. And I know that if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have coffee in the future. So the fact that they’re just doing this out of their desire to see this crop keep going to me is pretty miraculous.

SHY: What’s something you do every day that you think everybody else should do?

SS: You know what I’ll say is, go for a walk. Go out into nature every single day, even when it’s freezing outside. Just to kind of reconnect with the outer world. It provides a lot of grounding and healing, so I think it’s a good thing for everyone to do.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

SS: As someone who feasted on her life.

Liked this? Check out our review of Bread, Wine, Chocolate!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

Image Credit: Cem Ersavci for Dumbo Feather

Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist who’s spent decades teaching the world about the environment and social change. Her latest venture? Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love is a wake-up call that shows us how we’re slowly losing all of our favorite foods. We sat down with this real-life superhero to learn about her journey in writing this book.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you to write Bread, Wine, Chocolate?

Simran Sethi: I was in Italy doing research for a fellowship I’d been nominated for, and I was looking at genetically engineered foods, more commonly known as GMOs, and started to interview scientists and they said, well, that’s a concern in your country but what we’re really worried about is genetic erosion and the loss of agricultural biodiversity. And I had been working in environmental journalism for over a decade, and increasingly funneling all my work, my teaching at the University of Kansas and all my reporting through food because it was what I cared about most: food and farming. You know, it felt so intimate. And I thought to myself – how did I not know about this? I mean, I’ve heard of endangered species but I didn’t realize our foods were endangered. So that’s really where this started, you know, with the awareness that we are losing diversity in every component that makes food and agriculture possible.

SHY: If you could have the reader take away just one lesson from this book, what would it be?

SS: It would be to eat with curiosity, mindfulness and gratitude.

SHY: Can you elaborate?

SS: I start off the book with a poem by Derek Walcott, and the poem ends with the phrase, “Feast on your life.” I feel that what we do to food and what we do to our ecosystem is a real reflection of how we’re treating ourselves and each other. And for me, it was a real turning point to understand we were losing something precious about diversity in food, and the taste of different places by demanding this kind of cookie cutter agricultural system and foods that we eat. So to kind of come to the conclusion or the awareness, I should say, that 3/4ths of our food come from just 12 plants and 5 animal species, when it looks like when we go to the supermarket that there’s tons of choice, was a real awakening for me. But 90%, for example, of the dairy products that we see, whether it’s ice cream or milk or yogurt or sour cream or what have you, all come from one cow, you know? That’s 9-0 percent. And that notion of kind of creating a food system where we are investing everything in just a few varieties is really careless. So I think the way that we can participate in solving this problem, and when I say we I mean we the eaters, is to really savor the diversity and the differences in food. And that’s something that requires us to pay attention, first and foremost, and I go through how our senses work, and I have tasting guides in every chapter about how to taste beer and bread and coffee and chocolate and wine. And that was really, with the idea that like there’s so much that we don’t know. I thought it was just, put food in mouth, chew, swallow, say good or bad, you know. But there’s all these complex forces that kind of conspire to make us cherish our food or not. What I’ve found is by paying attention and being more grateful, I have had a greater awareness and understanding of food and also a greater appreciation for all the hands that it takes to get from wherever it comes from to me.

SHY: What’s the cheapest way to support biodiversity?

SS: Craft beer, which I talk about, I dedicate a whole chapter in the book to beer. You know, craft beer outsells Bud Light in the United States and it’s not that expensive. Turning towards the independent roaster instead of choosing maybe a Starbucks, and asking what the origin is. You know, I interviewed a scientist, the team, the lead scientist who had done research analyzing 50 years of data on what 98% of the world eats. And he and his colleagues coined what they call the Global Standard Diet, which is that we as a world increasingly eat wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and palm oil. And what he said to me was that anything outside of that handful of foods is a revolutionary act. So the continuum here of really changing the loss or stemming the loss of agricultural biodiversity is a pivot in the grocery store towards olive oil. He actually said eating olive oil is now a revolutionary act. Or taking out that more expensive chocolate. Or asking about the origin of your wine. Or choosing a local beer. Like, these things are not arduous. And I think the argument is often, like, well, this is all we can afford to eat. And to that point, I would say, we are throwing 40% of our food away here in the United States. We currently grow 1.5 times the amount of food that’s required for the population on the planet. And we’re now suffering more deaths globally from overweight and obesity than from people being underweight. So, hunger is a very real issue, even for those who are obese or overweight, we’re all malnourished. And the question for me is, what kind of quality of life do we want to have? And what kind of quality of food do we want to put in our bodies? And what kind of decisions do we want to make that lead to us having a more delicious life, to feasting on our lives but also to ensuring that we have diverse, delicious foods now and in the future?

SHY: Why did you include the science of taste and smell and how we perceive these things in the book?

SS: Well, because I wanted to empower people to make informed decisions. And I think a lot of books are prescriptive in this sense, or a lot of edicts from food or environmental people or what have you, like, eat organic! You know? Yes GMO, No GMO! I see very sort of overly simplistic tips. And I myself have given tips over the course of my career. But what I realized, pretty early on was, I just wanted to provide enough information for people to make the decisions that made the most sense for them. So I talk about, in the book, the way our senses work. So we understand how taste, flavor really would be the more accurate term, comes together. You know, I knew that it largely happened in my nose and my mouth but I didn’t realize that something like the weight of the bowl or the sound of of a chip crunching would have an impact on how I would experience food. Nor did I realize that there was a way to really taste and understand these foods. I think a lot of times, you know, the solutions are like, well, write your elected official or just change something. And I could have easily written a book saying these are biodiverse foods! And be done with it, you know? But that doesn’t really give people any tools to make these changes or to really even understand why those changes make sense for them. I explain in the book, when I was in Australia, I went to my first coffee tasting. I had just moved there from Italy so I was very familiar with cappuccini and lattes but that was kind of the level of my sophistication. And I thought I was pretty knowledgeable. And then the head roaster said, do you taste the hints of jasmine in the coffee? I’m like, what are you talking about, man? Jasmine? I just couldn’t find it. And what I wanted to do was give people maps so they could find the deliciousness in their food. So they could understand how our senses: smell, taste, touch, sight and sound, come together to inform how we love what we love. And then, make the decisions you want to make. But at least they’ll be informed ones.

SHY: In the book, you talk about the standard American diet and how your family came here from India – so your culinary experience in the States was a little bit different. Would you say that most people in the United States don’t really appreciate food?

SS: No, I wouldn’t say that at all. I was born in Germany. We immigrated to the United States from Germany, but I am of Indian origin. And I think it’s just not something we pay attention to. A lot of us. You know, there’s these polarized views where it’s like hyper-attention paid, you know, if you’re like a fancy foodie, or you’re just shoveling food in your mouth as you’re going through the drive-thru at McDonald’s. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of discourse or conversation about everyone in between. And that includes me, on both sides of that continuum at certain moments in my life. So I’d never ever say that people don’t care, but what I’ve learned through the work that I’ve done is that there’s only so much we can care about at once. And what I wanted to help people understand was this is a very real concern. You know? This loss of diversity will impact the foods that we eat now and in the future. And there are conservationists working hard to save the diversity in food. We say that in ex situ collections like seed banks, we save all kinds of material. We save grapevines, we save honey bee sperm, you know, we also save varieties, diverse varieties, in situ, in the wild, in situ is Latin for in place. And these places are where the wild relatives of crops grow as well. But these places are always under threat of deforestation. And yet there’s only so much you can put in a seed bank. So we save things by growing them, right? In situ conservation on farm. In place conservation on farm. What a lot of people might experience through like an heirloom tomato at a farmer’s market in the summertime. But that quality applies to all foods. There is a taste of place in all foods, and there are beautiful, precious varieties of all foods, and you know, conservationists have largely left us out of the equation. The eaters. And so what I wanted to do was really give us an opportunity to participate in the solutions to this problem.

SHY: Why did you choose these specific foods to focus on?

SS: So, no nutritionist would say, bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer was what we need to hold up the world and feed the planet. But after doing research in Rome, I went on a very brief cleanse to just kind of clean some of the wine and all the delicious food out of my system. And I ended up interviewing a chocolate maker who had been a botanist before he became a chocolate maker. And I went to the chocolate factory and I was being very very virtuous and he’s like, here, do you want some drinking chocolate? And I said no no no, just water. Hey, we’re trying out a new bar, do you want to try some, it’s all over the conference room table, and I said, no, no, I’m not hungry. So I’m super-virtuous in this moment. And then we go into the factory and there’s a machine that makes the chocolate fall down into a liquid again. And that moment of smelling that melting chocolate and being in that warm room, I just reached out for that machine. And I realized, you know, chocolate had been my every birthday cake. It had been my wedding cake, and it’s what got me through my divorce. And that my life staples were different than corn and rice and potatoes. Because frankly, I don’t eat that much corn. I don’t think I’d miss it if it was gone. But chocolate? Every day. Coffee sets the tone of every single day of my adult life. More constant than a job, than a husband, than a lover, coffee’s been there for me every morning. You know? So these were the things I wanted to talk about. Wheat is a dietary staple, and I talk about it through the chapter on bread, but I wanted to talk about foods that were celebratory and foods that we had memories, long memories of. Foods that helped mend broken hearts and helped wake us up in the morning. And for me, you know, that was bread and wine and chocolate and coffee and you know, what I also say in the book is even if you’re a vegan teetotaler, this is for you, because map my love onto what you love because your foods are being affected too.

SHY: So many environmental books focus on why you shouldn’t eat meat and the impact that meat has on the whole world. I thought it was interesting that you didn’t include that in the book. 

SS: No, because there is data that shows that there is a place for meat consumption in our food system and in our diets. And I am not someone who believes that the only way to save the planet is to be meatless, and there’s plenty of data that backs that up. So I’m not here to judge anybody’s decisions. I’m here to provide information that will help people make informed decisions so they feel empowered to do what’s right for themselves and their families.

SHY: You talk about in your book a little bit about GMOs, but what are your opinions on it? 

SS: Well, my book does not really detail the benefits or drawbacks of genetically engineered foods. It explains what they are, because a lot of people don’t really know what they are. So I explain what recombinant DNA technology is all about. And the bigger challenge that we are facing in our food system isn’t about simply genetically engineered food or seeds. It is about the fact that 70% of commercialized seeds are owned by 4 companies. And so what we are facing now is a real monopoly on the building blocks of not only food but pharmaceuticals, like medicine, fodder for animal feed, fiber that’s used in textiles like clothing and for homes. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about companies owning seeds and that these companies are being monopolies. So that’s a growing concern for everybody, no matter where you fall on the GMO continuum, this is a challenge. And what we’re also finding is a challenge, again, no matter where you fall on this continuum, is the creation of super pests and super weeds. And anybody who knows anything about agriculture kind of knows that whenever you grow things in monoculture, whenever you grow things without any diversity, you’re going to end up with a problem at some point, you know? But we still persist in growing things this way, whether it’s GMO corn, or a hybrid wheat. We’re growing fields and fields of these things without any diversity, and that means one pest, one disease can wipe all that stuff out. And that’s what we’re seeing right now with the Cavendish banana, which is in the paper a lot, and I talked about this on Public Radio International last week. When you grow only one version of something, and then that one version gets triggered with whatever risk it’s facing, it all goes away. So those are the problems that I really want people to start thinking about.

SHY: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with food and love and how the food got you through the heartbreak?

SS: What I will say is that I think that’s universal. It’s not specific to me. That food and drink help heal us, and they also can harm us. And for me, what I really wanted to help people touch was that place of food and memory. And of food as being something that was bigger than just what you shoved in your mouth and considered a calorie. And so, I really wanted to talk about the longer story, and the way it tied into my life in these more intimate ways. For me, the act of eating by myself in Peru and consuming a plate of octopus was a moment when I realized that I was connected to the whole world. You know? And after suffering heartbreak and realizing, like, feeling alone, you know, I realized that I was never alone. That the whole world showed up on my plate. And that was a very powerful moment for me. And that’s the same thing we have the opportunity to realize every single morning. Whether you’re drinking tea or coffee or juice or milk, it doesn’t matter. Every single one of those things passed through many hands and many environmental conditions to get to you. And it starts right there. Like, from that moment of consumption, throughout our entire day, we are connected to the entire world. And by recognizing that interconnection, then we can, I think, better understand why we need to care for each other and reach across the world to really support something like biodiversity. We’re not going to feel it here in America. Coffee doesn’t grow in America, you know? But if we drink it every day right? So I’m going to just use it as an example. So we don’t feel acute pain. We’re shielded from the price volatility. But it’s happening in real time. And if I can paint the picture of what some of those people are going through and who they are, if I can give them names, and if I can tell you where they live and how they live, then my hope is that they’ll become part of your consciousness. You know? Either directly or indirectly. And that you’ll start to make decisions that hold them in your heart. You know, that we will all start to. I can only speak for myself. Once I learned about them, I did. It did matter to me. And it did start to change the way I moved in the world and the way I ate food. And, you know, I’m sharing my experience, and we’ll see if it has an impact on someone else as well.

SHY: What’s the most important lesson you learned in writing this book?

SS: The most important lesson I definitely learned was just how much work went into getting me my life staples. And I’ll go back to coffee for a second, because it took a ridiculous amount of time to go a distance that should have taken…I mean, in the United States, it would have taken about 2 hours. It’s about 120 miles. And it took us almost 7 and a half hours. And to hear the farmers in Ethiopia say, we have beautiful coffee. We don’t have roads. You know? And they don’t have constant electricity. And they don’t have access to constant water. I realized, oh my gosh, this coffee is a miracle. I cannot believe this coffee got from Ethiopia all the way to America into my cup and it’s so awesome. And that awe, that reverence, I’ve never had that before. I didn’t have it until I got to go to the places where these things actually came from. The deep birthplaces of coffee and of chocolate, and started to understand what it meant to keep these things going, and what it took. And so I would say that’s the deepest lesson. I have a lot more gratitude for what goes in my mouth and I have a lot more, I guess, connectivity to the fact that I wouldn’t have any of the things that I love were it not for the world.

SHY: What food would you miss the most if it disappeared?

SS: Chocolate.

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

SS: What is my real-life superpower? I guess maybe being able to see into the future just a little bit. To talk about some issues that are maybe not right in people’s sightline immediately but become that way. So I’ll use the example of the book. I started writing this book 5 years ago. I’m definitely not the first person to write about agricultural biodiversity, but you know, the book came out like a month ago, and in the last week we’ve been talking about how Cavendish bananas might go extinct, you know? So I think that was a little bit of a superpower on my part. That I was able to think about the issues that were going to be ahead that we needed to start to think about and worry about.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

SS: My real-life superhero…there’s just so many I’m trying to narrow it down to one. I’m going to say a collective of people and that is those farmers in Ethiopia that aren’t getting compensated to save all these diverse varieties of coffee, but they do it anyhow. They’re my superheroes. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have this delicious coffee. And I know that if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have coffee in the future. So the fact that they’re just doing this out of their desire to see this crop keep going to me is pretty miraculous.

SHY: What’s something you do every day that you think everybody else should do?

SS: You know what I’ll say is, go for a walk. Go out into nature every single day, even when it’s freezing outside. Just to kind of reconnect with the outer world. It provides a lot of grounding and healing, so I think it’s a good thing for everyone to do.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

SS: As someone who feasted on her life.

Liked this? Check out our review of Bread, Wine, Chocolate!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

Image Credit: Cem Ersavci for Dumbo Feather

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