Scientists have compiled a list of little-known plants that could end up on our menu by 2050, when the planet’s climate is expected to be warmer, forcing us to diversify our diet.
Currently, 90% of the calories consumed on average in the world come from just 15 types of crops – three of them in particular, rice, wheat and corn – and the impacts of the war in Ukraine on global food have highlighted the importance of diversifying nutrient sources.
And global warming increases the risk of price and supply shocks for many types of food – as crop failures caused by extreme weather events can lead to rapid price increases on the international market.
In light of this, experts from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, began a search for ingredients that help protect our menu from these future uncertainties. And diversifying our food is one of the solutions to alleviate hunger, reduce biodiversity loss and help us adapt to climate change, says Sam Pirinon, a researcher at Kew.
In the future, then, it is possible that a “fake banana” or a pandanus fruit will enter the plate of many people.
“We know that there are thousands of edible plant species around the world that are already consumed by different populations, and that’s where we can find some of the solutions to these global challenges of the future,” says Pirinon.
Of the more than 7,000 edible plants in the world, only 417 are widely cultivated and used for human consumption.
Here are some of the foods pointed out by Kew scientists as sources of diversification in our dishes:
the pandanus (pandanus tectorius) is a small tree that grows in coastal areas from the Pacific Islands to the Philippines. Its leaves are used to flavor sweet and savory dishes in much of Southeast Asia, while its fruit, which has similarities to pineapple, can be eaten raw or cooked.
The tree is able to tolerate challenging weather conditions, including drought, high winds and salt gusts, says Kew researcher Marybel Soto Gomez.
“It’s climate-resilient food, nutritious and also delicious,” she explains. “It would be great to diversify our food to include some that are culturally appropriate, nutritious and can be grown in challenging conditions around the world.”
If pandano can be used sustainably, without depleting resources from local populations, we can grow it more widely, she argues.
Some legumes are also seen as “foods of the future”. Many are inexpensive, high in protein, rich in vitamin B, and adapt to a wide range of environments, from ocean coasts to mountainous regions.
There are 20,000 legume species in the world, but we only use a few of them. Hundreds are believed to be in the wild, without even being discovered by scientists.
the morama (Tylosema esculentum) is a staple in parts of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, where its beans are cooked with corn or ground to make porridge or drinks.
Not all legumes are edible, but experts have explored the properties of different species to see which ones are actually nutritious and can fit into our diet.
Nature also has a wide diversity of cereals: more than 10,000 species, offering great potential for new foods.
the fonio (I would type exilis, variant of millet) is a nutritious African cereal used to make couscous, porridge and beverages. It is also able to tolerate dry planting conditions.
Ensete, or “false banana”, is a close relative of the banana we usually eat, but only consumed in a part of Ethiopia.
Some of the fruit is not edible, but its stem and roots can be fermented and used to make bread and porridge.
Studies suggest that crops of the “fake banana” have the potential to feed over 100 million people.
“This is a culture that can play a very important role in food security and sustainable development,” Wendawek Abebe, from Hawassa University in Awasa, Ethiopia, told the BBC in January.