When most people think of endangered species, images of giant pandas or snow leopards likely come to mind. It is less common that they have heard of the Zulu sheep or Ischian cave rabbits, and much less likely that they are concerned with their plight.
These domesticated species face different, but no less critical threats to their existence than the wild animals that are often at the heart of environmentalist causes. It might seem contradictory at first, but a solution to save these species from being lost forever, is to eat them more.
No one can deny that the consumption of meat and other animal-derived products is an act full of moral questions and consequences. Raising animals for food involves issues of health, welfare and the environment. However, farmers who raise breeds in their native climates, on native diets, and with the integrated use of manure as part of a more ecological agricultural system, not only raise healthy animals with less human intervention, they also actively contribute to the furthering of those species. In addition, these practices also support the plant species that such livestock consume.
The Italian Slow Food Sambucano Lamb Presidium is an excellent example of a breed-revival project that, in the past 25 years, has brought a local variety of livestock back from the brink of extinction. It has also reinvigorated the Stura di Demonte valley in Piedmont, by stimulating demand for specialty meat, milk, and wool products, and by creating new jobs in livestock, tourism, marketing, and education.
With other heritage breeds like Pineywoods cattle and Mora Romagnola pigs facing extinction within our lifetimes, we must respond to this imminent threat to our world’s biodiversity. These animals and the farmers and ranchers who raise them must be supported, not just in an abstract, feel-good way, but economically. Increased consumer demand for these threatened species will support more ecologically sustainable farming and biodiversity, as well as gastronomic pleasure. The industrialization of food goes hand-in-hand with the homogenization of taste.
This use-it-or-lose-it concept goes beyond raw materials. In New Orleans, Slow Food activist Poppy Tooker used her “eat it to save it” campaign to revive interest in local products like Creole cream cheese and calas (rice fritters). Eating certain foods actively engages us in keeping culinary traditions alive. If particular types of cheeses or cured meats are no longer consumed, they may slowly be lost, but at least maintain the potential to be revived. In the case of livestock breeds, however, extinction is final.
People are not going to stop eating meat any time soon, but a renewed interest in heritage breeds and the more sustainable ways in which they are produced can be one small step towards the creation of an overall improved food system that promotes Slow Food’s values of good, clean, and fair.
Find out more about Slow Food's work to protect endangered products, through the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity's projects.
Sara Silvestri completed a master’s degree at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in 2013. Find out more about the university at www.unisg.it Photo: Paola Viesi