Forgotten Foods Poised to Make a Comeback
Imagine eating at a buffet that is reasonably well-supplied with what you would expect to see at any decent buffet — dinner rolls, rice, corn, chicken and all the fixings, only to hear that just next door, there is a larger buffet, with 5,115 more offerings. Would you rather eat there?
This scenario is actually playing out across the planet right now. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, there are 5,500 food crops grown across the globe, but it’s estimated industrialized nations know a mere 7 percent of these life-sustaining and potentially mouth-watering foods. In fact, three-quarters of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. For a planet that is rapidly growing in population, it would seem our food supply could use some serious expansion. Some say the answer is in forgotten, neglected or underutilized plant species (NUS), the foods we never knew we were missing, now severely under-researched and in danger of disappearing from the menu altogether.
So how did it come to be that thousands of edible plant species have been cultivated by humans throughout history, and subsequently forgotten by modern agriculture? In the 20th century, agricultural research and attention shifted to developing domesticated crops tailored for high yield and durability, focusing on a few cereal grains. This left smaller, more local food crops in the hands of whoever still understood how to grow them and when those farmers retired or switched to more conventional breeds to keep up with the market, the local varieties began to disappear. This shift has resulted in the loss of 75 percent of global farm plant diversity since 1900. “If we don’t grow it, we lose it,” says Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Food USA. “And we’ve lost so many crops already.” So what exactly has gone missing?
In the United States, Johnny Appleseed’s legacy has been severely diminished by the loss of 86 percent of apple varieties. The strawberry your grandmother ate as a child is a different berry now, that perfect floral goodness relegated to the halls of memory and the stalls of a local farmer’s market once a year, in a good year. Tomato or tomato, what we get at the grocery store today is most often a genetically modified idea of a tomato, not necessarily the juicy fruit that instigated fistfights in its honor. It’s now a rarity to taste the delicious difference between a tomato grown in the red mud of the Mississippi versus the Creole kind in New Orleans. Wheat continues to be whittled down from amber waves of grain to a ghost of its original form. And it’s not just plants. Our historically rich array of cattle has dwindled to a single breed — Holstein Friesians — accounting for 90 percent of dairy cattle. On the global level, 20 percent of the world’s 8,000 livestock breeds are now in danger of extinction. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, with a culinary tradition rooted in the diversity of our land. How have we allowed some of our most beautiful natural resources to slip away? There must be a cost-benefit to weigh.
A Green Dilemma: Variety or Speed
Food is now the largest industry on the planet, yet hunger remains one of the biggest problems facing the world today. The Green Revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s attempted to increase food production worldwide with new technologies, including high-yield varieties of cereals, chemical fertilizers and irrigation. These practices largely replaced traditional farming and with it, more nutritionally diverse, and now underutilized, crops. From the Green Revolution onward, we’ve narrowed our focus to meet the needs of a growing global population, sourcing more than half of our food energy from just three plant species — rice, maize and wheat. These efforts, while initially successful at filling bellies, are lacking in substance. We’ve learned that people need more than calories to survive. A high-quality diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts, but these are not so easy to come by, especially in developing countries where billions of people have fewer foods available to them and the foods they do have often lack original nutrients. Take wheat for example. During the manufacturing process, the brain and germ are removed, resulting in a final product that is missing at least 17 of its original key nutrients and 25 percent of its protein. More than two billion people worldwide suffer from a lack of critical vitamins and minerals necessary for growth and health. Many of the identified neglected crops are highly nutritious and could potentially play an important role in solving global hunger in a way that truly feeds people what they need to survive.
The good news is that with 250,000 identified plant species on the planet, neglected plant species have the potential to be developed as novel agriculture products to stimulate the local economy for smaller farmers and their communities. These crops, from millets in India, to fonio in West Africa, to purslane in Mexico, to tubers in the Andes, are already grown with valuable knowledge developed through generations of cultivation. And since underutilized crop species have been largely untouched by modern farming practices, they show resilience to some of the greatest threats of a changing climate, including extreme weather, pests and diseases; while modern crops are engineered to grow fast and strong, but lack adaptability. This could be an achilles heel if we fail to broaden our approach.
An Insurance Policy for Survival
A recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that rising temperatures and changing climates pose a real threat to our global food supply. Unlike our modern global crops, neglected and underutilized species are accustomed to growing in less than ideal conditions. They survive and even thrive under the stressful growing situations that are predicted to limit agricultural productivity around the world and become more prevalent as our climate changes. In preparing for survival mode of any kind, we create backup plans, diversify our options and amass emergency supplies. What we don’t do is put all of our eggs in one basket. Agriculturalist and Senior Advisor to the Global Crop Diversity Trust Cary Fowler considers NUS to be the perfect insurance plan for survival: “Diversity is the most effective, easiest, cheapest and most sustainable way to help agriculture adapt to change.”
In the ancient words of Confucius, we would do well to study the past if we would define the future. One infamous example of the importance of diversity is the Irish potato famine. In the mid 1800s Ireland was almost completely reliant on a single variety of potato, the Irish lumper. When the potato blight struck, farmers had nothing in their arsenal to resist the disease or to replace the crops. Over a million people died of hunger and another million had to leave their homeland in search of food. Fowler considers if this were to happen today: “the privileged among us would pay an economic price for that lack of planning and prioritizing through higher food cost, but the poor would pay for it with their lives.”
So if neglected and underutilized species can strengthen food security, alleviate poverty and increase the resilience and sustainability of farming systems, how do we help to develop them? We might start by looking for those already cultivating something special, an heirloom tomato, a heritage grain, a fruit we’ve never seen before. Powerful change begins at the community level and spreads across the planet with the help of organizations like CGIAR, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network. CGIAR provides sound research for policy makers, and innovative tools for partners, with three goals: to reduce poverty, improve food and nutrition security, and improve natural resources and ecosystem services. By 2030, the action of CGIAR and its partners will result in 150 million fewer hungry people and 470 million acres of land saved from degradation.
Sometimes the shift begins with the government, as in the case for millets in India. A staple crop for tens of millions of people throughout Asia and Africa, millets were regarded as poor people’s food, despite their status as a “smart food.” Gluten-free, millets are an excellent source of protein, calcium, iron, zinc and dietary fiber, and they can be grown in arid climates with almost no water. For all of these reasons, the Indian government launched an initiative to champion millets, partnering with celebrity chefs like Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen, located in Mumbai. Listed as one of the world’s 50 best restaurants, The Bombay Canteen now showcases millets in their regional Indian cuisine to rave reviews.
Far from India, in a remote Norwegian archipelago near the North Pole, scientists at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are busy with their own efforts to preserve the diversity of food. Referred to as the Doomsday Vault, a giant facility built into the side of a mountain holds the seeds of 825,000 crop plants, and counting. Its purpose is to safeguard against those plants’ extinction, many of them essential food. The seeds are survivors, varieties our ancestors preserved for good reason, from all over the world — the US, Russia, North Korea and beyond. The vault is designed to protect the seeds in any condition. Even if the electricity were to fail, the natural temperature is such that they could survive for decades. While this may seem a bit sci-fi, the massive effort underscores the importance of cultivating and protecting our diverse species on the planet, for the buffet table and the foreseeable future.