by Priya Bapat, Humanitas Global
When imagining the future of food, conversations quickly turn toward more avant-garde possibilities such as lab-grown meat and meal-replacement beverages. However, redefining food in the modern era goes beyond these tech-heavy, futuristic solutions. Other solutions are right in front of us – expanding the definition of what we consider food.
According to a Bioversity International paper, humans rely on very few sources for our food needs. A few facts:
- Approximately 30,000 edible plant species have been identified.
- 7,000 have been used in human history to meet food needs.
- 150 plant species are cultivated commercially.
- 103 crops provide 90% of calories in the human diet.
- 4 crops (rice, wheat, maize and potato) provide 60% of human energy supply.
It’s clear that we are not taking advantage of the abundance of food resources available to us in the world. In the food and nutrition security community, we often cite the need to double current food production in order to be able to feed the world by 2050. While it may be true that we need twice the amount of food, increasing production is not the only pathway toward reaching this goal. Reducing food waste, maximizing production efficiency and taking advantage of all food resources are equally important.
How are people redefining and amplifying the definition of what we currently eat? Below are a few examples:
1. Popularization of native plants and foods
Around the world, both in developing and industrialized countries, native species and foods have sometimes fallen out of favor and been replaced by more ubiquitous, global foods such as potatoes and corn. However, many food security groups and food movements (such as food sovereignty advocates) are working to promote the consumption of indigenous crops. In a survey of nutritious, local foods, Save the Children (STC) in Guatemala discovered that there were local varieties that were both nutritious and easily found growing in the wild, but were not consumed. STC is now promoting the cultivation of such crops in household gardens to support food and nutrition security. Similarly, in rural El Salvador, health workers are promoting the consumption of iron-rich plants such as chipilin and mora that can be found in the wild or cultivated in a family plot.
The popularization of native plants and foods can also lead to global dietary diversity, such as the case with quinoa. While there are negative impacts to the globalization of such foods (such as the low supply and high price of quinoa in Bolivia), it also can prove to be beneficial. As the crop becomes more important globally, it will receive more attention from crop scientists and the agribusiness sector, leading to the development of more productive varieties and improvement of crop quality and yield.
2. Don’t throw that away!
We often throw away parts of plants and animals that are perfectly edible, but are not commonly eaten. For many low-income groups, eating the whole plant or animal is standard practice as they can ill-afford to waste food. However, in recent years, “undesirable” cuts of meat have become more fashionable – tail, trotters, heart, brain, etc. Foods which previously went toward other sources such as pet foods or meat by-products are now being sold and purchased in stores both due to their wider acceptance and lower price.
For vegetables, as we’ve grown more conscious of food waste, parts that have commonly been thrown away such as beet and carrot greens are now being integrated into recipes.
3. Can I eat that?
Some foods are more popular in certain areas around the world and are expanding our definitions of what we consider edible. Take algae for example. Seaweed, popularized via Japanese cuisine, is now commonly accepted as a food source in many parts of the world beyond Asia. This is opening the door for other types of algae to be integrated into the food system. As Slate reports, we’re often eating fish and land animals that are fed algae, so why not consume them directly?
Another potential food source is the wide, wonderful world of insects. Although many around the world view the idea of eating bugs with squeamishness, their consumption is becoming popular beyond the realm of dares on reality TV shows and extreme survivalists. According to a report by FAO and Wageningen University, insects are part of the traditional diet of at least 2 billion people around the world, just shy of a third of the world’s population. Bugs are an excellent source of protein and are beyond bountiful. The possibilities are limitless and go beyond direct consumption – everything from animal feed to cricket flour.
In order to continue to meet the food needs of the world as we move into the future, we need to be creative in looking for solutions. While advances in production and food technology certainly are a part of it, maybe part of the answer has been in front of us all along.