Are forgotten foods the solution to climate change?

As climate change begins to affect the production of food we eat every day, the world’s diet may have to undergo a dramatic transformation. Currently, 2/3 of the food we eat is based on just four crops; wheat, maize (corn), rice and soy. While a warmer world may actually lengthen the growing season of some crops, its side effects, including droughts, flooding and pests, stand to threaten the global supply of these essential food staples. From your morning toast to your soy latte to the pizza or take-away Indian food you eat at the end of the night, most mainstays of a typical diet stand to be affected. Couple this with the need to raise agricultural yields to feed the projected population growth over the next few decades, and the impending agricultural crisis becomes even more important. Reliance on just four crops makes us vulnerable to food shortages and inflation, but there may be a solution; rediscovering nutritious and delicious foods that have been long forgotten.

Agriculture and the climate crisis

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), overall food production will have to increase 70% by 2050 to meet the world’s projected population of 9.1 billion people. Wheat, a staple of western diets, has had lower than average yields in 2017/18 due to record-breaking droughts in key areas of production, including Australia and the western United States. The EU this year has released its lowest wheat production estimates since 2012/13 due to persistent drought in northern Europe (most notably Germany). New research from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that while some areas (particularly in northern regions) will experience longer growing seasons and higher yields of key crops like wheat, it will not be enough to offset the losses brought on elsewhere by climate change. For example, maize yields in the Midwestern United States are expected to drop 20% by 2050, with China and India expected to suffer major losses of arable land. Overall, the IFPRI predicts global maize production will drop 24% by 2050, wheat by 3%, rice by 11% and potatoes (another key crop) by 9%.

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Droughts are expected to become more common, especially in areas already prone, like New South Wales in Australia. Drought also has major implications for meat production; it is estimated to take 1,300 gallons of water to make a 1/3 pound fast-food burger. Worse, pollution and erosion from repeated plowing and fertilizing of fields are taking their toll; researchers from the University of Sheffield estimate that the world has lost 1/3 of its arable land in the last 40 years. Finally, politics is also impacting food production; poor environmental protection policies or armed conflict lower a countries’ agricultural yield, as has been the case in war torn South Sudan, where 90% of the population is dependent on farming or fishing for income and sustenance.

Are indigenous plants the future of food?

In the face of these challenges, there is a movement to rediscover indigenous crops that are alternatives to the big four. They are tasty, nutritious, well-suited to their environments, and more resilient to climate change. Organisations like Crops for the Future are growing and processing indigenous and little-known crops, even producing recipes with them to help market them to the public. Reviving forgotten foods represents a shift away from a focus on crop yields and towards nutrition; by eating more nutritious foods consumers get more sustenance with less expenditure of natural resources. Moving towards crops that are native to a particular area reduces CO2emissions from importing major staple crops from other countries; the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the food sector is already responsible for 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions. Because they are better suited to their environment, indigenous crops also require less fertiliser and other artificial growth enhancers. Crops for the Future is also investing in research into plant responses to higher temperatures and C02levels, and their findings have so far been promising.

Scientists are trying to revive foods such as the Bambara groundnut, a nutritious plant native to sub-Saharan Africa which colonial powers rejected because it had minimal commercial value. It is resilient even in poor soils and drought conditions, and it has been a favourite with test subjects for its taste. There are multiple other organisations invested in the quest to rediscover forgotten plants, including the global Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, and non-profit Native Seeds/SEARCH which collects ancient seeds from northern Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. Furthermore, there is a movement in the U.S. and Canada to promote foods integral to the diets of pre-Columbian Native Americans, which could prove to be viable alternatives to popular crops, including more resilient types of maize (such as Roy’s Calais Flint Corn) or alternatives to wheat (like acorns, which can be made into a gluten-free flour).  While abandoning corn, wheat, soy and rice-based foods may come as a hard sell, promoters of the forgotten foods movement are encouraged by an increased interest from consumers in foods that are more local, less processed and healthier. The explosion in popularity of quinoa, a native South American grain which was relatively obscure outside its place of origin until a few years ago, is now completely integrated with North American diets.  Clearly, with a variety of healthy and delicious foods to rediscover, perhaps a change in diet may not be so horrible after all. If anything, it could be a food revolution.


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