Biodiversity: What does it look like in our kitchens?

by Jules Mercer

Know your Fonio grains from your Khorasan? Or Enoki fungi from Maitake? Follow us on a tour of The Future 50 Foods report and chef’s kitchens as we explore new ideas of, essentially, old plates.

Black Turtle Beans, Photo: Food Forever

What is biodiversity in the food system and why do we care?

It’s a big word, it’s got big weight, and it’s talked about a lot: biodiversity.

Given the size of our global food systems, we’d be right to assume that this amount would include a range of products that our imaginations could run wild with as chefs in the kitchen – to play, experiment and savour all the flavours available. But, as it turns out, only 12 crops and 5 animal species provide 75% of the worlds food, with an estimated 940 of cultivated plants at risk of disappearing. In order to cultivate the use of a variety of plant-based dishes (especially plant-based proteins, which is a world of mushrooming ingredients much needed), we need to look at a larger range of produce to work with.

“Most of us might believe it’s our energy or transport choices that cause the most serious environmental damage. In fact, it’s our food system that creates the biggest impact.” 

Dr. Tony Juniper, CBE, Executive Director for Advocacy, WWFUK 

Biodiversity is the variety of plant or animal life in the world or in a specific habitat. The range and life of these work together in ways we are still beginning to understand: essentially we know that it is key to good health, food security and sustainable food systems. The variety of the plant system provides different important nutrients for humans – each one containing variables for our health. They also have different profiles in the way they grow, so it’s important from a climate change perspective in terms of decreasing the risk of loss of crops.

Monoculture, which makes plants susceptible to disease and pests, drains the land of the same nutrients year on year, which leads to soil degradation and reduces the market for exciting (and often indigenous) produce. It’s also difficult to trace where monoculture food comes from – the produce gets lost in the vast food system, so just knowing the farmer or producer and where your food comes from goes a long way in aiding biodiversity.


potato farmer
Photo: Food Forever

The forgotten future foods

       Source: Future 50 Foods

Much spoken about at the Chefs’ Manifesto Global Gathering recently in London, was Future 50 Foods – a report by Knorr and Unilever – which examines in detail 50 relatively unknown foods to encourage in a modern diet for healthy humans and environment.

“In a world cluttered with advice and pressure around what not to eat, we want to provide people with more food choices to empower positive change. For this reason, we have identified 50 foods we should eat more of because they are nutritious, have a lower impact on our planet than animal-based foods, can be affordable, accessible and taste good.” 

The report is simple to digest and take from it what you can – not every ingredient will make sense in a local context, but the principles and guidelines can be translated easily. Know of anyone farming wakame seaweed? Toss it into a salad. Bambara beans? Make a veggie burger. Nopales cactus paddles? Hailed as the actual hangover cure – stop the bus – let’s get that into way more brunch menus? The idea is to get us thinking out the box of homogenous food and into the larger, more exciting box of somewhat extraordinary ingredients that excites chefs and patrons alike.


Enoki mushrooms
Enoki Mushroom, Photo: Food Forever 

In the kitchen, the Chefs’ Manifesto members are embracing biodiversity and The Future 50 Foods Report. We chatted to the upbeat and passionate Irish chef Conor Spacey, of FoodSpace in Ireland and asked him a pressing question: how did biodiversity in your kitchen change your life, your food and your bottom line?

“I’ll talk for hours about this so you’ll have to stop me at some point! Everything we do at FoodSpace in Ireland is about Irish food. When you look into biodiversity – it can seem like stepping into the unknown in terms of ingredients, but when you break it down its really quite simple. Working with food that’s native to your country, seasonal and sustainably grown. When you look at it from that angle – well it gets exciting and opens up a world of incredible ingredients.

For example, when we look at grains in Ireland, we’re offered a narrow selection of rice and lentils, not native to our land. I want to replace rice and lentils and start using only Irish grains. It’s absolutely possible! We have an abundance of barley and spelt which are both delicious and nutritious.”

Is it, but is it really? Turns out once you’ve got the chutzpah to bring in biodiverse and local crops, it’s a quick dig in your pool of producers to find the ones doing it right:

“To find these ingredients, I went on a trek around Ireland looking for local producers of grains. Little did I know I was opening a can of worms – I realised just how many of our ingredients were imported when it was completely possible to support local farmers and get it right on our doorstep.  

Here’s a fact – did you know that 75% of the wheat in Ireland is harvested for Guinness!” We have to pause to acknowledge the priority the Irish give to their bolshy black drink, which is culturally hugely important,

“The remaining 25% is animal fodder. So, up till now, there’s little to no demand for Irish wheat in our consumer industry. The only solution for us was to connect directly with the growers. I approached the farmers and took it up with them. They were enthusiastic about supplying us, and even surprised – they’d never considered it before because there simply wasn’t a market. We now have a ban on imported wheat and work directly with the farmers who supply us with Irish wheat.

As chefs: it was, and is, in our power to create that market, so we did.”

Education is key – talk, talk and talk about it some more (something neither Conor nor I have a problem with, when it comes to this subject):

“Shout out about your ingredients, your sourcing and your producers. People get to learn about seasonal and fresh ingredients, they love being a part of the process. You do sometimes need to educate the customer and create a buzz around anything new or unusual, but they get so enthusiastic about it and jump on board with the gusto you resonate!”

Photo: Diana Patient 

The bottom line?

There’s definitely an interpretation that any produce that is local, from a small farm, perhaps organic, sustainable etc is more expensive. It’s an interesting idea: the notion that our food system is based on some sort of logic that would suggest that someone sat around a table of sustainably sourced coffee and worked things out.  If we import wheat for eg, surely that’s because it’s cheaper to import than produce locally?  But that’s just not always true.  In Conor’s case, it’s been absolutely untrue and sourcing locally has saved them a lot of buck:

“It’s an interesting one. Honestly, we’ve found that it’s just not true that local, seasonal food is more expensive. There are two factors here: firstly, we value our food way more than, say a supermarket.  If you undervalue food, you have no problem throwing it away and creating waste and profit loss.  Because of this high value of food, we use absolutely everything from whatever we buy – our margins are healthier for it - and so is the planet.  Secondly, we try to buy direct as much as we can.  Smaller producers who rely on your business are going to want to work with you and visa versa.  It’s a healthy, educational relationship from both sides.”

As it turns out, being flexible as a chef is a big part of more sustainable food production:

“Farmers should also feel okay to work directly with chefs: they’re the target market to support the producers.  From our perspective, working with the farmers – we find out what they’re going to produce, when it will be ready, and plan our menu around that.

  Bambara groundnut
    Bambara nut 
   Photo: Future 50 Foods

We need to sort biodiversity in the beginning rather at the end – we need to put what’s available on the plate, not what we want on the plate.

The Future 50 Report is fantastic – its geographically applicable to a lot more countries than it isn’t, but in general you can take the principles and run wild, which is essential for healthier food systems.  Biodiversity is as reliant on farmers as much as chefs – we need to support the farmers, it absolutely opens your eyes to what’s going on in your country and on your land.”

So let’s open up our eyes to our producers, farmers and land. What’s available to play with in the kitchen in your space?  Essentially, what we know is that the world cannot go on eating the way it is at the moment: it will require multi-level multiple change from everyone involved in the food industry, even if it starts with serving a Bambara nut or two.




Big thanks to OmVed Gardens for their continued support and hosting of the Chefs' Manifesto London Action Hub.