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Credit: Food Forever

World Food Day 2019: Cooking up new crops for the future

October 16, 2019

This year, #WorldFoodDay calls for healthy and sustainable diets affordable and accessible to everyone, as part of the UN’s Target 2.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals. So we’ve lined up an exciting list of interviews for our World Food Day coverage – from chefs to startup CEOs – to find out how they’re honing in on this issue.

We’re facing a big food conundrum. In 2019, 820 million people are still suffering from hunger, up from 811 million last year, according to this report by the UN in July. For the past three consecutive years, the numbers have climbed steadily. But on the ugly flip side, one-third of food produced for human consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion tons – is lost, or wasted. Putting it in money terms, the UN’s World Food Programme estimates it costs a whopping $1 trillion.

The world is also facing a crisis of extremes. While one in nine people worldwide doesn’t have enough to eat, many more are eating too much. The World Health Organization projects the number of obese children globally is predicted to reach 250 million by 2030, up from 150 million now. South Asia, in particular, is where the two extremes rear their ugly heads. Fifty percent of children in the region are either undernourished or overweight.

Snapshot: Crunching UN food statistics

  • In 2019, 820 million people still suffering from hunger, up from 811 million last year
  • One-third of the food produced for human consumption, some 1.3 billion tons, is lost, or wasted
  • Number of obese children predicted to reach 250 million by 2030, up from 150 million now
  • 50% of children there are either undernourished or overweight in South Asia

Source: UN, UN’s FAO

Humans have become more obese as their diets have shifted from seasonal, mainly plant-based and fibre-rich dishes, to high-calorie diets, rich in refined starches, sugar, fats, salt, processed foods and often marked by excessive consumption of meat, according to the FAO. Henrietta Fore, Unicef’s executive director, said the world was losing ground in the fight for healthy diets.

“Despite all the technological, cultural and social advances of the last few decades, we have lost sight of this most basic fact: if children eat poorly, they live poorly,” she said, in an official release. “Millions of children subsist on an unhealthy diet because they simply do not have a better choice. The way we understand and respond to malnutrition needs to change: it is not just about getting children enough to eat; it is above all about getting them the right food to eat. That is our common challenge today.”

Making matters worse, food diversity is taking a hit, further limiting the variety of healthier, accessible foods. For example, India has lost 90% of its strains of rice, and the US has lost 90% of fruit and vegetable varieties. In Mexico, where maize (or corn) originated, the varieties of the crop are down 80% since 1930.

Putting the strain on the ‘main 4’ crops

The amount of diversity in our diets is extremely limited, which is a cause for concern. We rely on just 1% of the world’s available crops – the main four being wheat, rice, maize and soybean – for around 60% of our calories. That means we’re standing on a very fragile foundation for our food. Dependence on such a limited range of crops means our food supply is vulnerable to drought, pests, disease outbreaks and a changing climate.

Chefs can play an important but little-known role in moving towards food security. By putting ingredients such as teff, amaranth and pawpaw on their menus, they are helping to expand diners’ palates while supporting biodiversity in the face of climate change. Food Forever is unearthing and plating what are could become the world’s “ingredients of the future,” such as chayote, amaranth, cassava, groundnuts, breadfruit, and teff. It is rapidly recruiting chefs to sign The Chefs 2020 Manifesto by the end of next year to join them in this effort.

Food Forever weighs in

Telling us more about the initiative is Food Forever ‘Champion’ Erik Oberholzer, who’s also founder of Los Angeles-based Tender Greens. It’s a chef-led kitchen serving seasonal and responsibly-sourced food to “improve the way people eat every day.” Weighing in on #WorldFoodDay too is Ethan Frisch, co-founder and co-owner of Burlap & Barrel. The startup works directly with smallholder spice farmers and foragers, extending farm-to-table values to the international spice trade. It has linked up chefs and home cooks to farmers in Tanzania, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Spain, Egypt and more.

Joe Gan: To kick things off – tell us more about the journey to incorporate new ingredients into dishes.

Erik Oberholzer: Amaranth seeds are perfect for a morning porridge, I have been using it in breakfast menus – most recently for a breakfast I did at the Rockefeller Foundation hosted by the World Wildlife Fund. Pawpaws are delicious mango like fruit native to the mid Atlantic states and in season now. I am serving tomorrow with a pumpkin soup as part of a plant based CBD/hemp dinner at Charlie was a Sinner in Philadelphia.

Joe: How does eating more of these less-commonly found ingredients support biodiversity?

Frisch: As chefs, we have the power to change our food system in critical ways. Restaurant diners and home cooks trust us to present delicious dishes, and when we present them with an ingredient they haven’t tasted before, that trust can lead to an expansion of a diner’s understanding of what counts as “food.” Unfortunately, we’ve been limited by food systems that prioritize quantity over quality and shelf stability over flavor to a very small subset of the edible ingredients available around the world, and it’s our responsibility to push those systems to be more diverse and inclusive.

Oberholzer: Pawpaw is mostly foraged in the wild and like other wild edibles requires undeveloped land. Amaranth is a native to Mexico with many varietals that can expand a farmers planting rotation for soil health as well as beautiful blooms that help all the pollinators.

Joe: From a regenerative agriculture perspective (planting crops that benefit the land or are good for it), what sort of effect do the new ingredients have when cultivated?

Frisch: Regenerative agriculture depends on both the crops to benefit the soil and environment, and on the planting, cultivating and harvesting of those crops to be additive to the overall system in which they grow. Farmers have been incentivized to grow high yield, shelf-stable varietals with less flavor or unique characteristics. We need to encourage the cultivation of complementary crops that illustrate why regenerative agriculture is important for flavor, price, availability and other measures that a consumer can experience rather than only abstract and long term benefits like reducing carbon footprints or encouraging biodiverse plant and animal life.

Oberholzer: Kernza, for example, has deep root systems that help to add carbon deep into the soil.

Joe: What do you think of the shift towards less meat, more plant-based protein? Will you be featuring any of those cultivated/plant-based meats?

Oberholzer: I am a huge advocate of a more plant forward diet. Tender Greens was inherently plant forward. I am not a big fan of meat analogues, though I believe they have a role to play in our food future. For me, I prefer whole foods versus overly processed.

Joe: How can we, as individuals, play a bigger part in biodiversity and the overall food chain?

Frisch: Unfortunately, I think there’s very little that an individual can do to encourage more sustainable and biodiverse agricultural practices. Luckily, very few of us purchase, prepare and eat food as individuals, and we can use the power of our networks to change our own personal food systems for the better. We can practice conscious consumerism, and focus on spending our money with small, regenerative producers and brands rather than publicly traded conglomerates whose ultimate responsibility is to maximize profits for their shareholders. 

Oberholzer: Add lesser known ingredients to your shopping list. Buy organic when ever possible. The best support for a better food system is to purchase those products aligned with this outlook on our future.

Know a startup that’s making waves in food sustainability and to curb wastage? Drop me a note at [email protected].

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