As global climate patterns continue to change, scientists say that global food production as we know it will need to adapt. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 15 crop plants are used for a whopping 90% of global food energy intake. Experts warn that our reliance on such a small basket of crops leaves the world’s food supplies increasingly vulnerable. For proof, we need look no further than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting fallout that has sent global food prices soaring while prompting an alarming increase in food protectionism. As part of an effort to help identify potential future crops, scientists at the renowned Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the UK, have proposed a few that might help feed our future world. The plants below come from the institution’s database of more than 7,000 edible plant species!
Chaya: Native to the Yucatán Peninsula of southern Mexico, chaya is a large, fast-growing leafy shrub. Commonly known as tree spinach, this plant’s highly nutritious leaves and shoots are a popular cooked vegetable in Mexican cuisine. They are steeped in protein, vitamins, calcium and iron. However, raw chaya leaves are highly toxic and require simmering in water for 20 minutes. They’re extremely resistant to pests, and can tolerate drought and heavy winds.
False Banana: Enset, commonly known as false banana, is a relative of the banana which is known as the “tree against hunger”, according to Kew, feeding 20 million people across Ethiopia. Although it looks like a tree, the enset is actually a giant herb that can be planted and harvested at any time of year. It not only provides food, but is a source material for weaving. The enset is also very resilient, tolerating droughts better than many other staples and scientists say 60 plants could feed a family of five for a year.
Finger Millet: One of 29 wild relatives of established grain crops being studied by the team at Kew to assess their potential to feed the world, finger millet (so called because of the shape of its seed heads) is already established as a staple crop in India. It is high in calcium and dietary fibre and helps prevent diabetes, say scientists. Known as Ragi in India, the grain is believed to have originated in Africa and spread to Asia in prehistoric times. Like other millets, it’s pest-resistant and grows well in tropical and semi-arid conditions.
Fonio: Fonio is one of the oldest cultivated cereals, dating back to 5,000BC, according to some estimates. A staple in the drier areas of West Africa, fonio is a fast-growing cereal which is rich in iron, calcium, and several essential amino acids. Its small grains are used to make porridge, couscous, and drinks. Fonio can tolerate and survive dry conditions but can be labor-intensive with current harvesting methods.
Lablab: Also known as the hyacinth bean, lablab is grown as an ornamental plant in cooler climates but is grown for food in Africa and in India where it has been cultivated since at least 2,500BC. Its leaves are a rich source of protein and iron and are also used to feed animals. The beans are nearly 25% protein and can be used to make tofu. Plant experts at Kew say that lablab could be grown more widely across the world as temperatures rise and they are working on developing a commercial crop version.
Mashua and Oca: Although they were first cultivated by the Incas in Peru as early as 8,000BC, potatoes are now eaten in at least 161 countries around the world. When it comes to finding sustainable alternatives, the Kew team are optimistic about two tubers – mashua and oca. Like the potato, both plants originate from the Andes, but unlike the potato they are not affected by blight which can wipe out entire crops. Mashua, which has a peppery taste, is one of the highest yielding Andean tubers and one of the easiest to grow. It thrives on marginal soils, develops rapidly, and competes successfully with weeds. Oca is hardy and frost resistant with a firm texture and a lemony taste.
Morama Beans: The morama bean is a drought-tolerant perennial native to arid parts of southern Africa. The drought tolerant plant also occurs naturally in grassland and open woodland. Also known as Marama, Camel’s foot and Gemsbuck in southern Africa, its seeds, when roasted, taste similar to cashew nuts. They are boiled with maize meal, or ground to a powder for making porridge or a cocoa-like drink. They also yield oil, butter and milk, and can be eaten as a meat substitute. This useful plant’s tuber and young stems are also edible and high in protein. Older tubers contain 90% water by weight. It is currently being grown commercially in Australia and the US.
Pandanus: The Pandanus tectorius tree grows in coastal lowlands from Hawaii to the Philippines. Otherwise known as the screw pine, the tree has a small trunk and is supported by prop roots. This resilient species can withstand drought, strong winds, and salt spray, though rising sea levels are a threat to the conservation of this species. Male and female Pandanus tectorius grow as separate trees. The female plant produces large segmented fruit similar to a pineapple, which can be eaten raw or cooked, while the leaves are often used to flavor dishes. (Sources: RBGKew, WeForum, Smithsonian)