Food In Our Genes

If you advocate moving back to a diet based on products which have been grown locally and are in perfect balance with their ecosystem, you are often accused of facile utopianism. You are automatically assumed to be trying to stop the inevitable march of globalization. It is supposed to be utopian to oppose a system of food production and distribution that provides goods from all over the world. It is supposed to be utopian if you are against globalization and say it is more appropriate to revitalize local products—starting by consuming local goods and recreating as direct a link as possible with producers. Never mind the accusations of excessive conservatism.

It is in fact difficult to shift our food supply back to local level, even though it is increasingly urgent in view of the ecological state of the planet and the imbalances, contradictions and problems afflicting our agrifood system.

However, I firmly belief in the desirability of a move back to local sourcing of our food needs, and am keen to work towards it because it seems to provide better options for defending biodiversity, protecting small-scale agriculture products, maintaining local cultures and also of course, ensuring better diets that promote health and well-being.

I recently found outstanding support for this position from Professor Gary P. Nabhan, Director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University and author of Why Some Like It Hot, a serious examination of the new field of evolutionary gastronomy. It is based on the scholarly erudition of a geneticist but told with a narrative verve that makes it accessible to all and a stimulating read.

I was pleased to find a professor dealing with gastronomy in a dignified scientific way, opening the way for a new understanding of the links between natural processes, locally-based food and diet. But I was even more delighted by the book’s main thesis, which reveals new reasons why we should oppose the standardization and downgrading of food around the world, be it in rich or poor countries.

The author basically states that we are not only what we eat but also what our ancestors ate, when globalization, or even trade over extended distances, was unimaginable. Analyzing the huge array of food intolerances afflicting almost four billion people on our planet, Nabhan concludes that for simple evolutionary reasons, the diets we are best adapted to are those that are deeply-rooted in the products from our local areas or where our ancestors came from.

Our genetic make-up evolved as a result of the diets that were available to our most distant ancestors. Obvious examples can be seen in the intolerance to alcohol of some populations such as the Japanese or American Indians, or to milk products for peoples who never practiced animal husbandry.

Nabhan tells the story of a great friend of his, a native American who died after considerable suffering because his genes would not tolerate the food habits imposed by the US. Nabhan relates an amusing story of being taken by his friend to the tribal village where milk powder donated by the US government was being handed out. The author was amazed to find that the Indians used it to mark the lines of the baseball field: native Indians cannot digest milk and as it was a present, had to find some way of using it.

Nabhan suggests that it is therefore dangerous to abandon traditional food habits and that the increasing incidence of food-related health problems—such as obesity, gluten intolerance, the spread of diabetes—may also be a consequence of the incredible dietary melting pot which has been introduced by globalization.

So we have a new voice speaking out in defense of local food traditions, communicating scientifically rigorous evidence in good style. You might not have the interest, desire or conviction to be involved with efforts promoting a renewed focus on local food, but why don’t you read Nabhan for yourself? He gave a fresh boost to us and his original approach might prompt others to roll up their sleeves and reconsider the issue of locally-sourced food.

First published in La Stampa on November 14 2005

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