25 May 2022

Eat it to save it

Exploring the potential of biodiverse dining in the megabiodiverse country of Colombia.

Photo taken above a woman with her hands laid on a large leaf which has four different edible crops laid out. The woman is looking up at the camera

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on the planet, hosting around 10% of global plant diversity, including about 3,805 edible plant species.

Of these, only 198 species are currently sold and eaten. The remaining - mostly wild and semi-domesticated plants - are rapidly becoming neglected.

Across the word, according to FAO, just 15 crop plants contribute 90% of humanity’s energy intake. Megadiverse countries like Colombia, sadly, do not deviate from this trend.

Over the past decades, the consumption of native plants in Colombia has substantially decreased in favour of high-yielding commercial crops, such as maize, wheat and rice.

This reliance on a handful of crops leads to a lack of diversity in diets, leaves Colombia’s food system vulnerable to climate change and also results in the loss of culturally significant foods.

Three researchers sat on rock surrounded by tall thin cacti in Colombia. One is placing a plant specimen onto newspaper
Collecting plant specimens in Colombia © N.Plata.
Researcher in a lush green forest next to a calm river that has a turquoise hue. Sunshine s shining down in patches on the river. The researcher is holding a long pole that reaches up to the trees above and is looking up.
Fieldwork in Colombia © N.Plata.

A unique edible flora

From tropical rain forests to dry savannas and Andean páramos, Colombia boasts an outstanding diversity of natural ecosystems. Such diversity is highly reflected by the composition of the edible flora belonging to every department in the country.

In a new study published in Scientific Reports (Nature), we illustrate that more than half of all Colombian edible species are endemic (found only in that area) in up to five departments out of thirty-three, and 795 species have only been recorded in one department. 

Our data highlights how each department of the country is a reservoir of unique edible plants that have the potential to bolster food security.

Colombian woman stood behind a huge green palm leaf. She is reaching for an edible plant, of which many are laid out on the leaf.
Judith, member of the local community of Otanche (Colombia), gathering native wild edible plants © J. Martin.
Woman in front of a steaming pot. She is looking at her hands. In one hand she has a knife and is cutting a plant.
Judith cooking edible wild plant species © J. Martin.

Colombian Neglected and Underutilised edible species

Neglected and Underutilised Species (NUS) are useful native species that are undervalued and often ignored by researchers, breeders and policy makers. However, they have been demonstrated to hold crucial importance for building sustainable livelihoods and future-proofing food systems.

They can mitigate environmental degradation, being highly adapted to local conditions and more resilient than commercial crops.

They have outstanding nutritional qualities, representing a valid solution to nutrition insecurity and ensuring diets are diverse and healthy.

They also hold critical cultural values that can motivate people’s engagement in conservation and sustainable management.

Out of 3,805 edible species present in Colombia, 3,688 can be regarded as NUS.

We’ve been identifying key underutilised plant species as part of the Useful Plants and Fungi of Colombia project, which aims to improve livelihoods, wellbeing and food security by using a “conservation through use” approach that encourages nature conservation through the promotion of its sustainable use.

A tall tree in a forest in Colombia. The tree is surrounded by other trees
Guáimaro tree (Brosimum alicastrum) © N. Plata.

The Guáimaro nut

One species we have identified as a priority is the Guáimaro (Brosimum alicastrum Sw.), a wild edible NUS belonging to the Moraceae family, native to Colombian tropical dry forests.

Its seeds, which used to be a staple food for the prehispanic indigenous culture of the Yukpa, can be eaten raw, boiled, roasted or made into flour. Thanks to their great nutritional properties, they can be used as an ingredient to improve the dietary quality of traditional dishes such as arepas, empanadas, soups and enyucados.

Additionally, the Guáimaro it is of great importance for the protection of soil and water bodies, and it provides food for wildlife.

Today, due to extensive animal farming, coal mining and sowing of African palm for oil extraction, it is estimated that only 5% of the original Guáimaro forest cover remains.

The project is promoting the revitalisation of the Guáimaro through the establishment of a community-based facility for the processing of the seeds into flour, and the creation of a Value Chain Network (VCN), enabling the formation of connections between the local community and small businesses across the country.

By creating new demand for this NUS, sales of the processed nuts have increased in local markets.

Hands holding Guaimaro nuts
Guáimaro nuts © N. Plata.
Man pouring Guaimaro nuts from a red bowl into a metal tray
Processing Guáimaro nuts © N. Plata.

From forest to plate

Guáimaro flour is now used alongside wheat flour at Celele restaurant, in Cartagena de Indias, where chefs work closely with many local farmers and micro-producers to give visibility to some of the best native food products of the country.

Restaurants and chefs can be key actors in the conservation of plant diversity, bridging the gap between producers and consumers, promoting biodiversity in food systems and motivating a new demand for many more underutilised edible species.

An aubergine covered in purple breadcrumbs on a bed of colourful edible foliage on a gold plate
Dish served at Celele Restaurant (Cartagena, Colombia), prepared using Colombian Neglected and Underutilised edible species, including Guáimaro © Mauricio Diazgranados/RBG Kew.
Glass bowl of very colourful edible flowers
Edible wild species at Celele Restaurant © Mauricio Diazgranados/RBG Kew.

Read the paper

Gori, B., Ulian, T., Bernál, H.Y. & Diazgranados, M. (2022)

Understanding the diversity and biogeography of Colombian edible plants.

Scientific Reports, 12:7835

Useful Plants and Fungi of Colombia

This work is part of the Useful Plants and Fungi of Colombia project (UPFC), lead by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Instituto de Investigación Alexander von Humboldt. The project has been documenting and disseminating knowledge on useful plants and fungi of Colombia.

Additionally, it has been raising awareness in the Colombian society about the importance and value of its diversity of useful plants and fungi, and has developed a framework for creating sustainable value chains from plant and fungal diversity, enabling connection of knowledge and people’s livelihoods. 

It was supported by a Professional Development & Engagement grant under the Newton-Caldas Fund partnership. The grant is funded by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Colombian Ministry of Science, technology and Innovation (MinCiencias), and delivered by the British Council. 

Illustration of people investigate large pieces of fruit and veg

Food Forever

Step into the future of food at Kew's event of the summer and discover how we can transform our planet for good.

Read & watch