Not that long ago, when mankind was more connected to the land and to his place in the world, local food was a truly unique part of each community's culture. New ingredients might be introduced and new food traditions developed but in general, each region of the world had recipes and a food culture as unique as the languages they spoke.
Food has always been an important part of one's identity. Like learning your mother tongue, children learn to eat and like the foods of their society. People celebrate and take pride in their local recipes and food traditions.
Even as people move across the world, they take their recipes with them. You can get great Indian food in London and Japanese immigrants have created a whole subsection of Peruvian cuisine.
Unlike some other elements of society though, food culture has always been very flexible.
Incorporating new elements is normal, whether that be new ingredients or new ways of cooking.
Irish food without potatoes seems impossible but the rather new ingredient was actually incorporated into many older Irish recipes rather than just replacing part of the food culture completely. The introduction of spices like pepper to Europe created new ways to preserve and cook foods but the recipes developed were still uniquely European.
Early anthropologists like Margaret Mead saw these differences in the traditions and rituals around food as important parts of a society's culture.
While you could introduce new ingredients and other elements into a community, it really was nearly impossible to change the overall diet of the society on a deeper level.
Italian food is Italian food despite the fact that it has a huge reliance on the rather newly introduced New-World tomato. Just because a new ingredient was added, that didn't mean that they suddenly started making Mexican salsa.
The study of food culture has never been about preserving food and recipes in a time capsule. Just like the ingredients used, food culture is alive in its own way and changes slowly but constantly.
The goal of studying food and food culture is to notice this change, take record of the old, and embrace the new.
The problem? Food culture has begun to change on a major, global scale - much faster than ever before - and it is just no longer true that a man's diet is harder to change than his religion.
The advancements of the human race in the last 100 years has been astounding. No longer do societal changes happen on a century scale but rather a decade or even yearly level. A lot of this modernization has come from the West creating the massive force that it Westernization.
In the past, explorers, traders, and missionaries introduced new cooking ideas and food products to cultures they encountered. Some of the ideas would be taken in by the community, others tossed out.
It was a matter of evolving and changing. Today, food culture is no longer just being influenced by Western society though, it is being destroyed.
Cash Crops and the Physical Destruction of Local Food Culture
In the past, people tended to grow what they would eat and could use. A farmer would grow some extra crops to sell but nearly everything on his land was still something he and his community could use.
Cash crops - like corn, tobacco, wheat, and rice - have always had a place in farming communities but the modern scale of these operations is no longer something that can sit side by side with the traditional farmer.
There are places in the world where you could literally drive for miles and miles and come across nothing but fields of the same cash crop.
In the developing world, often these crops are not even something the local community would use or eat. Imagine acres of wheat grown in a society that has always been rice based - it is clear that money drives this development rather than the local food culture.
Add to that the fact that many of these cash crops are grown on massive farms bought up by foreign companies that have no concern for the ways their crops might be damaging local soil, driving out local farmers, and taking away land that was traditionally used to grow crops people in these communities might actually use.
Communities that use to produce nearly all their own food now must buy imported Western food or find a way to eat these new cash crops. Either way, their own unique food culture is quickly disappearing and their old recipes being thrown out to be replaced by foreign recipes that take advantage of the new, dominant crops and food sources.
Another example - a local food source suddenly becoming a cash crop and being sold away from the community.
In the high Andes of South America, quinoa has been an important part of the local food culture for generations. They even have myths and legends of their ancestors literally being born from the quinoa plant.
Today though, vast amounts of the quinoa grown in the region is being bought up by foreign companies, causing local prices for the grain to rise, and leading many local communities scrambling to replace this important part of their food culture with something else.
The “Luxury” Food Market and The Role of Multinational Food Corporations
With food landscapes and the food culture of many regions around the world changing on a physical level - with different crops being planted and prices for region foods skyrocketing - there is also a simultaneous, deliberate marketing effort to change the world’s food cultures on an emotional level.
In the past, food cultures would change slowly as outside influences were added. These outside influences came from individual travelers, immigrants, and even corporations.
However, while the powerful food and trade companies of the past, like the East India Company or the Dutch West India Company, were able to make incredible fortunes by fundamentally changing food cultures around the globe, these companies had nowhere near the power or control multinational food companies have today.
The most powerful message international food companies use is the idea of “luxury” foods.
As developing countries gain more stable and profitable economies, large (usually Western-based) corporations are seizing the chance to earn a new market.
How do you sell something like an apple flavored candy though to someone who has never even seen or tried an apple?
This is the problem many Western food corporations are facing in these new markets. Their solution? To present their products, backed by the power of millions of dollars in advertising funds, as the “luxury” option.
The perfect example?
Poor farmers in South America, now earning a better living selling their quinoa to Western markets, are being sold the idea that a father who provides for his family and loves his children, should treat them to “luxury” imported food products.
The same companies exporting the quinoa have begun importing these “luxury” Western stables - everything from soda to US raised beef.
In effect, the money they are putting into the local economy through the purchase of quinoa crops is being taken right back out as they heavily market and sell their “luxury” imported foods.
Quinoa has become too expensive for many poor locals to buy and now, even the farmers growing it are cutting it out of their diets in favor of “luxury” imported foods.
What kind of affect will this have on the local food culture? On the children of these farmers? On the future food landscape of these communities?
The local food culture is being stressed on all sides and changing on such a rapid scale that recipes passed down for generations risk disappearing altogether in just a few short years.
Why the Rapid and Massive Destruction of Food Culture Matters
As we said before, food culture is extremely fluid and always changing. The problem is not the change of these unique food cultures, but the speed at which it is occurring.
In some cases, this change is happening so rapidly that over as little as one generation there is an almost genocidal destruction of a culture's unique food heritage.
Food culture will always change but without the opportunity to record and observe these changes over multiple generations and across decades, we risk losing vital parts of who we are as individuals, as unique cultures, and as a human species.
Food culture contains a great deal of a society's knowledge.
As mankind spread across the globe, billions of people have over hundreds of generations discovered how to survive in each of the planet’s unique ecosystems.
It is not scientists discovering the next new superfoods but cultures who have eaten them for generations finally sharing that knowledge with the world. The preservation of foods through pickling did not come about because of a corporation’s desire to better deliver food to distant customers but from necessity and the ingenuity of the people who settled harsh lands with long, winters.
With changing climates and loss of biodiversity, this vast encyclopedia of knowledge could literally be the key to our survival as a species.
Who know’s what the next “superfood” discovery might do for the study of cancer or what farming techniques might save the drought-stricken farmlands of California?
Preserving this knowledge is a matter of ensuring our future.
Loss of this cultural food knowledge - what to eat, how to grow it, how to prepare or preserve the ingredients - directly leads to the loss of biodiversity.
As people stop eating the foods of their ancestors, they stop growing it, they stop buying it, and the market for it dries up.
A great example is the corn industry in the United States. There was a time when hundreds of varieties of corn grew in the United States. Today, an estimated 90% of all the fruit and vegetable varieties of the US have vanished and you would be lucky if you could even track down a dozen types of corn still commonly grown in the country.
Loss of biodiversity puts us all at risk of food shortages due to climate change, plant diseases, and stronger pests who specialize their attacks to the few varieties of crops still grown commercially around the world.
In the end, it is this loss of knowledge and diversity that threatens us the most.
We lose the plants and animals our species has come to rely on as food sources.
We lose cultural knowledge on not only what is safe or most healthy to eat but also how to grow, harvest, and use these resources.
We lose the stories and traditions that make up our unique societies, creating a more bland world and eliminating the insights that come from different ways of thinking and understand the world.
Diversity is what has helped mankind survive and thrive on this planet.
Having a diverse source of ingredients, recipes, and culinary traditions to pull from makes us stronger as a species.
We can not let corporate greed, mega cash crop farms, or our own desire for the “luxury” items of our neighbors destroy what hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and human ingenuity have created.