Ninety per cent of the world’s energy intake comes from only 15 crops; and more than half the people on the planet (upwards of four billion) rely on maize, rice and wheat as staples.
Kew scientists and collaborators identified 7,039 edible plant species in their research and there is the potential that this number can grow more and more. In their study, the researchers looked at the edible plants’ other uses: 70 per cent are also medicinal; nearly 60 per cent can be used for materials (e.g., in construction); and 40 per cent have environmental uses (e.g., enrich the soil).
Just 417 of these are currently considered food crops, the researchers found, leaving thousands of overlooked and underutilized plants. Some of which may have been grown in the past, but have fallen out of favour, others which are known locally but not globally, and uncultivated plants people collect from the wild.
The multipurpose morama bean holds promise for the future of food. Native to the arid savannas of southern Africa, it’s well-adapted to harsh conditions. Widely eaten there, its flavour is reminiscent of cashew nuts when roasted. Cooks work with it in various forms: Milled into powder for porridges and drinks, or boiled with maize meal.
“From a single bean, you can obtain milk. You can obtain oil. And you can grind the bean and obtain flour, which can be really useful for baking. The potential of this plant is really incredible,” explains Tiziana Ulian, senior research leader in Kew’s Natural Capital and Plant Health department. “(Its tubers) are full of water … which is really good for the species to be able to grow in very dry environments, like in southern Africa in the Kalahari Desert.”
Akkoub, which is eaten as a vegetable in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East — fried with olive oil and garlic, pickled, or folded into omelettes;
Fonio, a wild grass species that grows in West Africa, which “is a potential staple food” high in iron, calcium and several essential amino acids;
Pandanus, a drought-resistant coastal tree which grows from Hawaii to the Philippines, and produces fruit and leaves with a variety of uses; and
Chaya, a shrub with “highly nutritious” leaves and shoots native to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
The baobab found in Madagascar, northwestern Australia and various parts of the African continent epitomizes the versatility researchers were looking for. The tall, “upside-down” trees provide shade, giving them immense social significance. It also presents a multitude of medicinal, material and edible uses: The fruit and seeds are local foods; the white pulp treats fevers and diarrhea; and the bark is used to make clothes, paper and rope.