Agricultural land makes up 38.6% of the Earth’s ice free land, equating to 19.4 million square miles. Yet of the earth’s estimated 400,000 plant species, we eat only 200 of the 300,000 species we could. In addition, whilst agriculture is the root of how we feed the global population, it is also a key contributor to global warming. Greenhouse gases, including methane from cattle, nitrous oxide from fertilizer and carbon dioxide from deforestation, create more emissions than cars, trucks, trains and airplanes put together.
Therefore, in order to feed the estimated global population of 10 billion people by 2050, we either need double the number of crops produced, but in a more sustainable way, consider how to make better use of the land, or eat a wider range of plants and animals.
A 2018 report by WWF and Knorr, outlines a list of Future 50 Foods, that help improve the overall health of the human race by improving the nutritional balance of our meals, but also lessen the pressure on the Earth’s atmosphere as they result in lower carbon usage. We have identified five foods that could improve the health of both our communities, and our planet.
Lentils were one of the world’s first cultivated crops. As a pulse, they have a water footprint 43 times lower than that of beef and are packed with minerals such as iron, zinc and folate. In 2016, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) developed the International Year of Pulses citing pulses such as lentils as “small but powerful allies” in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is because growing pulses with other crops enhances soil fertility, improves both crops' yields and contributes to a more sustainable food system. In addition, pulses can be grown in very poor soils, and help reduce the risk of soil erosion and depletion. For poor farmers, growing pulses contributes to stable livelihoods, additional income and improved nutrition.
Also known as the prickly pear or cactus pear, nopales are widely cultivated in Central and South America. Much of the plant can be eaten, from fruit, the flower, cladodes and its oil, all of which are all rich sources of nutrients that can help prevent cancer, help boost metabolism, lower cholesterol and help control blood sugar levels.
Nopales also have potential for use as animal feed and to produce alternative energy sources in the form of biogas. When chopped and pureed, then mixed with manure, the nopales flesh breaks down to produce methane and water. At around just $0.65 (or 12 pesos) per litre, it is one-third cheaper than standard gasoline or diesel and it burns considerably cleaner than conventional sources of energy. As a result, it is a biofuel that could help stabilise or even reduce food prices.
Fonio has been cultivated in West Africa for thousands of years. In certain regions of Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Nigeria, for instance, it is either the staple or a major part of the diet. Each year West African farmers devote approximately 300,000 hectares to cultivating fonio and the crop supplies food to 3-4 million people.
Its drought resistance and ability to grow in sandy or acidic soils make it well-suited to the environment, and it matures rapidly (in 60-70 days) and plays an additional role in securing the desert topsoil. Indeed, farmers can make up to 600 West African francs per kilogram selling fonio, more than twice what they can get for rice. The world’s first fonio mill is due to be built by 2020, which it is hoped will introduce the grain to a wider international audience.
Ethiopians have been planting teff – the base of their renowned injera bread - for more than 3,000 years. Ethiopians get about two-thirds of their protein from this tiny grain and as well as being a good source of fibre, vitamn B6 and magnesium, in 150g serving of flour made from teff delivers 25% of the RDI of protein.
Teff has the potential to stabilise food insecurity in less developed countries as it can cope with both drought and waterlogged soil, is easy to store and is pest-resistant. However, in 2006, the government outlawed international sales of the grain for fear of international popularity diminishing Ethiopia’s domestic production. Indeed, between 2009 and 2013, demand for teff grain increased its price tenfold between. But these fears are subsiding. Teff yields have increased by 50% in the last five years, according to the ATA, and prices have remained steady, prompting the government to partially lift the export ban.
- Enoki mushrooms
These tiny straw-thin mushrooms grow all year round. They are commonly used in East Asian countries as a ‘low-carb noodle’. Although any effects have yet to be proven, they were one of the first mushrooms to be studied for cancer benefits.
According to a new study measuring the water, energy and carbon emissions required to grow and harvest fresh mushrooms, they represent a greener alternative to many traditional crops. The study found that to produce a pound of mushrooms requires only 1.8 gallons of water and 1.0 kilowatt hours of energy and generates only .7 pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions. In addition, the annual average yield of mushrooms is 7.1 pounds per square foot – meaning up to 1 million pounds of mushrooms can be produced on just one acre.