Biodiversity plays a key role in the future of food

The endless parade of limited-time offers at restaurants and the vast landscape of flavor varieties in packaged food aisles may make it seem like our food supply is diverse. However, while many consumers are spoiled for choice, the foods we consume represent only a very small portion of nature’s bounty. 

Biodiversity plays an essential role in the health of our planet, and making sure a diverse range of foods are represented on our plates is key to the future of our food system, experts said in a session at the Menus of Change conference held last week at the Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Despite biodiversity’s key role in feeding the Earth’s growing population, we continue to lose valuable natural resources at an alarming rate. The rate of species extinction is accelerating, according to a report released in May by the United Nations. Without serious changes in the way we produce and consume food, the food security and public health outlook is bleak.

 Part of the problem is that most consumers don’t understand the importance of biodiversity when it comes to food, said Hannes Dempewolf, executive director for Crop Trust, an international organization dedicated to conserving crop diversity. Many people tend to think of extinction in terms of wild animals, but the challenge he and others face is getting consumers to care as much about millet as they do “cute, cuddly pandas,” he said.

Flavor is perhaps the most effective tool chefs and food companies have when it comes to getting consumers to care, said Mike Lee, co-founder of Alpha Food Labs.

The sister company of Food+Tech Connect and The Future Market creates and launches food and beverage products designed with nutrition and sustainability in mind. For the Varietal line of Crop Crackers currently in development, the company took a common snack item and reimagined it to support crop rotation, a practice that helps return nutrients to the soil and reduce soil erosion. Rather than using one type of grain, the cracker line includes seasonal varieties such as Hard Red Winter made with winter wheat and flax, and Dark Northern Spring made with spring wheat, millet and flax.

Recipes inspired by crop rotation “reward farmers for being able to plant millet and sell it at a human-grade level instead of having it be sold as birdfeed,” Lee said.

Fostering an appreciation for a wider variety of grains, fruits, vegetables and animal proteins could help expand the very limited pool of ingredients that make up the world food supply. Three-quarters of the world’s food comes from just 12 plant and five animal species, Lee said, asking, “why would you leave all that flavor off your table?”

When it comes to putting lesser-known ingredients on the menu or the grocery shelf, finding the right partners in farmers or suppliers is key. When Sweetgreen wanted to put uncommon produce on its menu, the salad chain partnered with Row 7, a seed company created by chef Dan Barber, breeder Michael Mazourek and seed specialist Matthew Goldfarb. The partnership resulted in salads featuring the koginut squash, a hybrid variety bred for sweetness and shelf life.

Reflecting on the inaugural Menus of Change conference in 2013, Sweetgreen Vice President of Food and Beverage Casey Gleason said, “there was a lot more talk about how people were not ready for this, and ‘how are we going to get people to eat weirder things?’ They are more ready than us now.”

Many of the discussions at Menus of Change boil down to the idea that in order to drive change through food, it has to be delicious. By taking “weird” foods -- whether they are new breeds like the koginut or ancient grains like millet -- and presenting them in a way diners find irresistible, chefs have the power to shape a more sustainable future.

“We want to shift the way we talk about sustainable food,” Alpha Food Labs’ Lee said. “We need to start thinking about how to move to a world where we can say to people, ‘this food is delicious because it’s sustainable.”

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