Foods of the future
Kew scientists reveal plants that could feature in our diets by 2050.
Release date: 10 June 2022
- Of more than 7,000 edible plants worldwide, only 417 are food crops
- Lack of varied diets poses challenge for the global population
- Just three crop plants are the staple foods of more than four billion people
- Kew scientists highlight future foods with potential to diversify diets and tackle food shortages globally – at Kew Gardens’ Food Forever summer programme
Our food is under threat, facing dangers from land-use change, pests and diseases, and climate change; even a 1-2 degree change in temperature threatens to spell the end for many of our favourite everyday foods.
As a global population, we rely on just 15 crops to provide 90 per cent of our energy intake and scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have put forward a diverse list of crops and ingredients that could future-proof our diets, sharing their vision for which plants could feature on our plates by 2050.
Foods of the future
The news you didn’t want to hear is that the world’s favourite coffee – Arabica (Coffea arabica) is under threat from climate change. Thankfully, measures are in place to safeguard our morning brew. Kew researchers have recently found that a rare species of wild coffee from Upper West Africa, known as Sierra Leone coffee (Coffea stenophylla), can tolerate much warmer temperatures than Arabica. This opens up the potential to breed and produce new, climate-resilient coffee crops for global consumption, helping to protect coffee farming from the climate crisis.
Those who like to start their day with a bowl of cereal could see their breakfast bowls replaced with fonio (Digitaria exilis), a grass species native to the savannas of West Africa. Cultivated locally as a crop, fonio tolerates dry conditions and its small grains are used to make thick porridge, couscous and even drinks. Fonio is high in iron, calcium, several amino acids, and as recent research has found, B vitamins.
How do you like your eggs in the morning, with cacti? There are more than 1,500 species of cacti, of which some are edible. These include the well-known prickly pear (plants in the genus Opuntia) – a widely eaten food in Latin America, where the pads are often grilled and served with eggs or in salads and tacos.
Another crop with the potential to bolster sustainable food production in the long run is the climate-resilient ‘False banana’, enset (Ensete ventricosum). Commonly cultivated in Ethiopia, this close relative of the banana is cherished for its versatility as a source of food and raw building material. Once planted, enset will grow for up to 12 years and just 60 plants could feed a family of five for a year. The plant’s starchy, vegetable-like tissue can be turned into various foods, including kocho, which is used in dough to make bread.
Members of the humble bean family, otherwise known as legumes, also hold huge potential and are being touted as the foods of the future. Beans are more resilient to climate change and more tolerant of drought than many other crops, and are a valuable tool for putting nitrogen back into the soil. Their edible seeds, or pules, have been consumed for thousands of years, stretching from the ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, all the way to India, China and Mexico. The most common beans consumed today are the kidney, pinto and navy (Phaseolus vulgaris), as well as faba beans (Vicia faba), lentils (Vicia lens), chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) and peas (Lathyrus oleraceus). However, hundreds more species are waiting to be found in the wild.
The morama bean (Tylosema esculentum) is a drought-resilient perennial native to arid parts of Southern Africa and a staple for the indigenous populations of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The plant’s seeds are widely eaten and boast a flavour similar to cashew nuts when roasted. The beans are also boiled with maize meal or ground to a powder to make porridge or a cocoa-like drink. Morama beans are also a source of oil, butter, and milk, can be consumed as an alternative to meat, and are rich in proteins and unsaturated fatty acids.
Seaweed could become more prevalent in our daily diet in the coming years. With more than a third of the world’s soil in a state of moderate to high degradation, more and more people are turning to the seas and oceans for growing food. Seaweed is already a popular feature in Japanese cuisine in the form of nori – dried, edible sheets used to wrap sushi and added as condiments to soups and other dishes.
Rice is an incredibly important crop but its cultivation requires striking a delicate balance between ‘too hot’ and ‘too wet’. Although the plant itself is incredibly thirsty, flooding can destroy paddy fields and heat waves can stop it from growing at all. Kew scientists have tackled this challenge by looking for alternatives to the current cultivated rice varieties, as part of a larger project working with partners in 24 countries to collect the seeds of ‘wild cousins’ from 29 key global crops. Each collection is conserved in a country and a portion is sent to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, where the seeds are safely stored in underground vaults and used to find out if a wild species has genetic resilience to the impacts of climate change, such as extreme temperatures, or to pests and disease. Scientists hope the seeds can help to breed new varieties which can protect rice production for future diets.
A thistle-like plant, Akkoub (Gundelia tournefortii) grows almost exclusively on undisturbed rocky soils in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, where its unripened flower heads are eaten in many different ways. The plant can be fried with olive oil and garlic, pickled, added to omelettes, or served with meat and chickpeas. The plant is rich in calcium and iron, and has been traditionally used in Islamic-Arab medicine.
Pandanus (Pandanus tectorius), a small-trunked tree from the screw pine genus, grows in coastal lowlands from the Pacific Islands to the Philippines. Supported by prop roots, it boasts excellent resilience to drought, strong winds, and salt spray. Male and female pandanus trees grow separately, with the female producing large, segmented fruit akin to pineapple. The fruit can be eaten raw or cooked and the leaves are often used to flavour dishes, thanks to their herbal aroma. The leaves are are also used to wrap rice, meat, or fish, or used to make a juice extract.
A large, fast-growing leafy shrub that is native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Southern Mexico, chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius) is rarely consumed outside of Central America. The plants leaves and shoots, which are also known as tree spinach, are highly nutritious and a popular vegetable in Mexican cuisine. They are rich in protein, vitamins, calcium and iron. When raw, however, the leaves are highly toxic as they contain hydrocyanic acid and need to be soaked in simmering water for 20 minutes. Once cooked, chaya leaves are often consumed as side dishes, served in oil or butter.
Food Forever at Kew Gardens
Across summer 2022, Kew Gardens will host a brand-new summer programme, Food Forever, exploring the future of food and taking visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site on a thought-provoking journey exploring the impact our day-to-day eating habits have on the world around us. As well as a host of large-scale art installations, screenings and talks, Food Forever will also feature contributions from pioneering scientists at Kew who are working hard to research the importance of sustainable food production and consumption with partner organisations all over the world.
Each of the large-scale contemporary art installations which visitors can discover on a self-led trail around Kew Gardens highlights a different aspect of modern food consumption or production, including sustainability, future foods and food security. Exploring a variety of themes through these enthralling artworks, visitors will be able to reflect on what we can do to combat climate change and biodiversity loss.
Innovative design duo Sharp & Sour will showcase their unique Future Food Stories, highlighting a selection of everyday food staples that are becoming increasingly insecure because of our changing planet. Working with Kew scientists, this series of interactive installations will also showcase crops and ingredients that could help to futureproof our diets. Quorn, a pioneer in alternative protein, is the Supporter of Future Food Stories.
Available from June 2022, The Kew Gardens Cookbook is a celebration of the huge array of plants and fungi that have the potential to broaden our palates and make us think differently about food. The book features over 60 vegetarian recipes from celebrity cooks, chefs and food writers, from cuisines around the world, and celebrates both the glorious variety of edible plants that we eat, and the vital work that Kew does to promote and sustain this rich biodiversity. Contributors include Diana Henry, Meera Sodha, Thomasina Miers and Yottam Ottolenghi.
For more information or to book an interview, please contact: PR@kew.org or call 0208 332 5607.
Notes to Editors
About Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world-famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international and a top London visitor attraction. Kew Gardens’ 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, and Wakehurst, Kew’s Wild Botanic Garden, attract over 2.5 million visits every year. Kew Gardens was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 260th anniversary in 2019. Wakehurst is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. RBG Kew receives approximately one third of its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and research councils. Further funding needed to support RBG Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales.