Ingredients such as sorghum, fonio and moringa are appearing on restaurant menus and in grocery stores. Increasing the diversity of foods used won’t just deliver flavor and a unique sales angle, but also support more resilient and sustainable production.
We have known that relying on a few crops for our food is a risky business. The Irish Potato Famine, known as “The Great Hunger,” was one such lesson: In 1845, a fungus ruined half of the potato crop that year and affected crops for the next seven years, resulting in the death of more than one million people.
In the 1960s, a pathogen destroyed the main banana variety, the Gros Michel, driving it to near extinction. It was replaced by the Cavendish. Today, the Cavendish accounts for 99 percent of bananas traded globally — and it’s now being threatened from a new strain of the same pathogen from the last decade. In banana-growing regions in the world, such as Africa, bananas are critical for food and income.
Losing sight of this history has us facing unprecedented risks in our food supply. Over three-quarters of our global food supply comes from just five animal and twelve crop species. This handful of species is vulnerable to pests, diseases and extreme weather. Climate change is adding to this challenge, with this summer being the hottest on record. Yet, there are tens of thousands of wild species that can provide a richly varied range of nourishing foods that can bring greater resilience to our food system.
Notably, many of the lesser-used foods — such as sorghum and millet — are tolerant of drought and other stressful weather conditions, able to grow where other crops have difficulty. Further, adding more diversity to plants to the field, with multiple-year crop rotations and cover crops after harvest, such as rye, helps to build soil health — reducing water, nutrient and pest control demands while increasing the amount of carbon stored underground.
Chefs and companies are starting to look to these diverse options for a win-win-win to their business, consumer diets and our planet. While not a new idea, Slow Food was established in the 1980s, largely to support the idea of “eating it, to save it” — to save diversity in flavor, experience and resilience, there is renewed interest. The timing for this resurgence could not be more vital, given the perilous state of biodiversity loss that we are facing.
The Chef’s Manifesto is a call to action for the culinary industry to champion sustainable diets that includes protecting biodiversity. The program includes Chef Pierre Thaim, who has restaurants in New York and Nigeria. He and companies such as Yolélé are building a sustainable supply chain to produce fonio for restaurants and the global market. The grain is often served as hot cereal with fruits and nuts or a luncheon grain bowl, rich in nutrients.
Fonio is a versatile crop that flourishes in times of drought and grows well in sandy soil. Some varieties mature in just six to eight weeks, making them ready to eat well before other staple grains. It can be grown with little water and fertilizer, and can support economic development for producers in Africa.
Moringa is a tree, and a superfood — delivering a punch of vitamins, phytochemicals and antioxidants desired for health benefits. Common uses for moringa are eating the protein-rich leaves in salads or as a powder for adding to all sorts of foods. Every part of the plant is edible and can be grown quickly. It is also drought-tolerant and can grow in poor and sandy soils. Being a tree, it can be cultivated with crops below and around it — agroforestry — to add diversity, resilience and productivity in the field. Leading companies such as Kuli Kuli are building the moringa supply chain by supporting the growth of smallholder livelihoods and empowering women producers.
Adding more variety to crops grown is called agricultural biodiversity, or agrobiodiversity. This reaches beyond the diversity grown for food and includes everything from the soil and pollinators that support production.
Buckwheat is a soil-building plant that provides a nutritious and sustainable crunch in Patagonia Provisions' snacks. This seed comes from a plant that is often used as a cover crop — which helps suppress weeds, retain water and reduce soil loss — after the harvest of cash crops. Buckwheat also grows well without relying on pesticides and heavy fertilization. Using this and other cover crops in food production helps create a market for farmers looking to expand their use of the beneficial practice and build their soil health.
The Sustainable Food Lab has a project aimed at just that — increasing the market for soil health-friendly crops. Its Small Grains in the Corn Belt project is looking to revitalize the use of oats in the crop rotation with corn and soybeans in the Midwest. The Sustainable Food Lab is working with companies in the food and beverage supply chain to increase the demand for oats, such as a livestock feed.
There are literally thousands of plants and food species like fonio, moringa and buckwheat that many have yet to experience. Knorr recently partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to identify "50 future foods" — the emerging options were identified by looking for diverse foods that were nutritionally dense and better for the planet, among other considerations. Foods such as the naturally drought-tolerant adzuki beans; spelt, which does not rely on pesticides or fertilizer; and nitrogen-fixing Bambara beans that naturally fertilize the soil are on the list. Knorr is educating consumers about the future foods, providing recipes, and integrating them into their product offerings.
A key solution for agrobiodiversity is well at hand. We need to take steps now to add variety to our fields and plates. This will bring the resilience we need now to sustain the future for our growing population. The superfoods of tomorrow will not just be those rich in nutrients; but also rich in flavor, environmental and health gains, and diversity.