27 June 2019

Food for thought: When sustainable chefs meet Kew scientists

Bringing together food and science, here's how chefs working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are inspired by Kew Science.

By Katie Avis-Riordan

Chefs' Manifesto

Biodiversity and food are a fundamental part of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

When chefs from around the world came to meet botanical scientists at Kew Gardens, it was clear that this relationship had the ingredients for a future of sustainable food.

The Sustainable Development Goals

Created as a plan to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all, the SDGs address the global challenges we face, targeting issues around poverty, inequality, climate and environmental degradation.

Each of the 17 global SDGs has a deadline for the year 2030.

Kew is well placed to help achieve some of those goals including:

  • Goal 2: Zero Hunger (to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture)
  • Goal 15: Life on Land (to sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss).
Tiles of the SDGs that Kew contributes to
Kew's Sustainable Development Goals

How is Kew involved?

We believe that an understanding of the natural world is essential for achieving the SDGs.

With 260 years’ worth of collections, both living out in the Gardens and preserved in the Herbarium, we are uniquely able to share our expert plant and fungi knowledge, whether about the nutritional value of cultivars (cultivated plant varieties that have been bred, in this context, for food) or resistance factors that could help a plant deal with climate change.

‘Kew’s collections may hold the answers,’ says Professor Monique Simmonds, Kew’s Deputy Director of Science. ‘We provide people with fundamental knowledge.’

Plants and fungi underpin all life on Earth and many of the SDGs depend on their diversity. This is why our work towards Goal 15: Life on Land is essential to achieving the other 16.

Our scientists collaborate with over 100 different organisations worldwide, using their research to determine how to make the best use of resources, alleviate poverty, enhance nutrition and agrobiodiversity, and ensure there continues to be Life on Land.

The chefs learning about our work in the Kitchen Garden
The chefs, including Arthur Potts Dawson (lower centre), learning about our work in the Kitchen Garden © RBG Kew/Ines Stuart-Davidson

Chefs’ Manifesto

One of our collaborations is with the SDG2 Advocacy Hub, which has brought top chefs from all over the world together to create a Chefs’ Manifesto.

The manifesto, made by chefs for chefs, is a framework which outlines how chefs can contribute to the SDGs through simple, practical actions.

Set up to fight the food-related issues that matter most to them under the SDGs, the campaign aims for a better and more sustainable food system for all.

Chefs come to Kew

Several of the chefs involved with Chefs’ Manifesto paid a visit to Kew to learn about our vital science and horticultural work around food security, sustainability, biodiversity and growing food in new ways.

The relationship between science and food we believe is vital to achieving the SDGs.

‘It’s been amazing to be at Kew Gardens and to have botanical scientists meeting with chefs, really sharing insights into different plants and how they are used and grown,' says Paul Newnham, Director of the SDG2 Advocacy Hub.

'But also how this can translate into taste and flavour and help us address some of the Sustainable Development Goals.

'I think there is a real opportunity for these kinds of cross collaborations to really look at creating new solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face such as climate change and biodiversity loss.’

The chefs finding out about our Economic Botany Collection
The chefs finding out about our Economic Botany Collection © RBG Kew/Ines Stuart-Davidson

The past informing the future

The group met with our scientists working on the Economic Botany Collection to hear about some of the historic plant-related items in the collection and how studying them can help inform planting for food today.

‘Learning about Kew's Economic Botany Collection and how ancient cultures used plants and didn’t waste any part of the plant at all was really interesting,' says chef Tim Blake.

'It’s come around again full circle. We are now applying this in restaurants, reducing waste and increasing sustainability.’

The Hive and pollinators

Visiting The Hive, the chefs met our Chemical Ecology Senior Research Leader, Dr Phil Stevenson, to learn about Kew's work on understanding pollinators and how this impacts food systems. 

'Through The Hive and Kew Science I discovered the impact of bees on the environment and our food chain,' says chef Elaine McArthy from Le Cordon Bleu.

'The amount of food Kew produces in the Kitchen Garden was also fascinating and links in with what we are doing in our restaurants and in our business. The simplicity was key.'

A little food tasting happened in our Kitchen Garden with some of the ingredients foraged from the Gardens, including a delicious 21 ingredient plant burger.

The chefs sampling food in the Kitchen Garden
The chefs sampling food in the Kitchen Garden © RBG Kew/Ines Stuart-Davidson

The impact of Kew Science research 

During their visit, the chefs heard about the vast range of scientific work Kew is undertaking in relation to the SDGs. 

'We want to understand the science that is being generated globally about food systems and translate that through our operators in real time on our campus to build our community to be healthy and sustainable,' says Smitha Haneef, Assistant Vice President for Princeton University Services.

'At Kew I was pleasantly surprised by the number of postdocs and researchers who are so engaged. Monique’s talk was exquisite and she was able to give real time examples of Kew's work on biodiversity and in different countries.

'Secondly, around five years ago I was at Expo Milano and out of all the pavilions there The Hive caught most people’s attention. Between then and now, the dialogue on global food systems, provenance and prominence of food has accelerated.

'It’s also fascinating to see the engagement of all the staff here. Multiple actors from different departments amplify what Kew does on a global scale.'

Pancakes made at Kew
Pancakes made at Kew © RBG Kew/Ines Stuart-Davidson
21 ingredient plant burger
21 ingredient plant burger © RBG Kew/Ines Stuart-Davidson

Biodiversity is the key

Understanding plant and fungi biodiversity is crucial for food sustainability and achieving the SDGs, which has an obvious impact on dinner tables around the world.

‘It’s really inspiring to see such a focus on biodiversity as the key to food sustainability,' says eco chef Tom Hunt.

'At Kew I’ve learnt how biodiversity underpins all of our life’s ecosystems.

'What’s unique is that chefs have come together with scientists to better understand the food system through the medium of biodiversity and Kew Gardens as a huge resource.

'And as a chef, it makes you realise there is this whole world of taste out there that we haven’t even started to explore.’

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