30 September 2020

5 foods of the future

Supermarket shelves in years to come may look very different.

By Katie Avis-Riordan

Rows of vegetables on supermarket shelves

Kew’s useful plant dataset lists more than 7,039 edible plant species.

But according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, only 15 crop plants are used for a staggering 90% of our food energy intake.

This leaves us vulnerable to threats and challenges, such as climate change and expanding populations worldwide.  

Our scientists at Kew, working with international collaborators, have set out the need for more diverse, resilient, and sustainable food production systems in our new State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 report.

Part of this is to identify potential future crops, understand more about the planet’s existing edible plant species, and unlock the useful properties of plants and fungi.

Here are five foods that could help future-proof food production around the world…

Akkoub (Gundelia tournefortii)

Native to the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, this thistle-like edible plant thrives in undisturbed rocky soils.

The unripe flower heads of akkoub are eaten in many different ways, including fried with olive oil and garlic, pickled, added to omelettes, and with meat and chickpeas.

This plant is heavily harvested from the wild, which drastically reduces seed availability and the plant’s reproduction.

For its survival, it's vital there is sustainable cultivation and use of this species.

Spiky lone Akkoub plant growing in a dusty road crack.  Credit: Pablo Gomez Barreiro/RBG Kew
Akkoub (Gundelia tournefortii) with a white immature flower head and a fully developed flower head (yellow) growing on a rock crack Credit: Pablo Gomez Barreiro/RBG Kew.
Tubs of Akkoub flowers being sold on the roadside
A roadside market with great quantities of Akkoub (Gundelia tournefortii) immature flowers on display. Credit: Pablo Gomez Barreiro/RBG Kew.

Morama bean (Tylosema esculentum)

The morama bean is a drought-tolerant perennial native to arid parts of southern Africa.

It occurs naturally in grassland and open woodland.

Widely eaten, 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.

Morama bean (Tylosema esculentum)
Morama bean (Tylosema esculentum) © Wikimedia Commons

Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius)

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.

But raw chaya leaves are highly toxic and require simmering in water for 20 minutes.

Green leaves of Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius)
Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius) © Tortie tude/Wikimedia Commons

Pandanus (Pandanus tectorius)

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 flavour dishes.

Pandanus (Pandanus tectorius) fruit ripe and red
Pandanus (Pandanus tectorius) fruit © AntanO/Wikimedia Commons

Fonio (Digitaria exilis)

Fonio is a species of grass that grows wild across the savannas of West Africa.

This edible, fast-growing plant is currently cultivated locally as a cereal crop and is high 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 is labour-intensive to harvest.

Discover more about foods of the future and our research into edible plants in our new State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 report.

Fonio (Digitaria exilis) seed photographed for the research department at the Millennium Seed Bank
Fonio (Digitaria exilis) seed photographed for the research department at the Millennium Seed Bank © RBG Kew
Closeup of a bright green veiny leaf

Support Kew

Support our vital science and conservation work, from tackling challenges such as climate change to discovering new and sustainable uses for plants and fungi.

Find out more

Read & watch