Special report

‘It’s almost too good to be true’: Why the future of food might lie in the past

The world has become dependent on just a handful of crops, but cultivating “forgotten foods” could help feed our planet more sustainably.

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Watch our special report about how a food eaten for hundreds of years by indigenous people in Mexico is being cultivated by a superstar chef in Spain, in the hope of creating a truly sustainable crop.

Written by Tom Page, CNN

Ángel León’s vision for the future of seafood began with fish guts. As a boy, the chef was tasked with cleaning the fish his mother cooked. Sifting through, he noticed what the fish ate. “From there, I started to play with cooking,” he recalls.

León, the face of three-Michelin starred restaurant Aponiente, near Cádiz, in southern Spain, has drawn from the sea to create dishes that have beguiled diners with their ingenuity. Very little is off the table: A dish traditionally made with veal uses fish skin as its hero ingredient instead, while plankton also finds its way onto the menu.

The sea is “the great pantry,” he argues. León’s dream is discovering new ingredients out in the deep, including fruit, vegetables, tubers and cereals. The same foods evidenced in those fish guts could also be feeding us.

One cereal he’s experimenting with is “sea rice,” a grain sourced from eelgrass, a native seagrass found throughout the northern hemisphere. The grain’s texture is somewhere between rice and quinoa and does not taste of the sea, says the chef, adding it has the potential to be ground into flour for use in bread, pasta and pastry.

“Sea rice” is being cultivated for the first time in Spain

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With a mind to cultivating the grain, León has teamed up with marine biologist Carlos Duarte. “We can use the seagrass as a food source that will produce healthy foods for humans without requiring fresh water, nor arable land, nor fertilizers, neither herbicides (or) pesticides, and then sequesters carbon at the same time,” Duarte explains. “It’s almost too good to be true, but it’s absolutely true.”

Salt marshes along the coastline of Cádiz, Spain, where eelgrass is being trialled in high end cuisine. Credit: Juan Martin Bermúdez

The need to grow more diverse foods

Make no mistake, we need to explore more food options. Humanity today relies on 12 plants and five animal species to provide 75% of its food, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

More than 90% of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields in the last 100 years, as agriculture becomes more homogenized.

Putting all our dietary eggs in so few baskets is already linked to malnutrition and diabetes and could impact crops’ future viability. Growing less diverse crops and producing them more intensively can negatively impact soil health and soil biodiversity, and increase pests and disease-causing microbes.

To put it another way, we need to eat more broadly and grow more diversely, or one day more people could struggle to eat at all. Scientists and communities around the world are exploring ways to feed us more sustainably, and plenty of answers are being found in the past. From West Africa to South America, crops and varieties that were once popular, but have been increasingly forgotten, are showing potential to become foods of the future.

Such is the case with sea rice -- a future food with some unexpectedly long roots. There is evidence stretching back to the 1600s of the Seri (or Comcáac) people of Sonora, Mexico, eating sea rice, says Juan Martín Bermúdez, director of research and development and environmental advisor for Aponiente. As part of his work, Bermúdez visited Sonora, where along the coast there are large meadows of eelgrass. The community prepared sea rice for him, but it was the first time they had used the food in 40 years.

He says an initiative coordinated by ecologists is training young community leaders to keep these traditions alive, but they need support. “We have an obligation to learn from indigenous communities (and) the deep respect they have for natural systems,” says Bermúdez. However, “we’re in serious threat of losing this knowledge.”

Eelgrass
Eelgrass harvested in Sonora, Mexico. Credit: Juan Martin Bermúdez
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Sea rice is said to have a texture between rice and quinoa when cooked. Credit: Juan Martin Bermúdez
Chef
Chef Ángel León inspects the grain at restaurant Aponiente. Credit: Stefanie Blendis

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Eelgrass harvested in Sonora, Mexico. Credit: Juan Martin Bermúdez

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Sea rice is said to have a texture between rice and quinoa when cooked. Credit: Juan Martin Bermúdez

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Chef Ángel León inspects the grain at restaurant Aponiente. Credit: Stefanie Blendis

Bermúdez has brought this knowledge back to Spain. Aponiente is planning to help restore some of Cádiz’s degraded coastal wetlands with the seagrass, by taking samples from Santander in the north of Spain and transplanting them among the salt marshes traditionally used by the local salt production industry, but which have now largely been abandoned.

Although the work in Cádiz is still in its early stages, Aponiente is partnering with Duarte-backed non-profit Oceans 2050 with an aim to expand seagrass restoration to other parts of the world, including the US, Mexico and Europe.

It won’t just benefit diners, according to Bermúdez. “If we plant the seagrass in these estuaries, we are going to bring a lot of invertebrates, we are going to bring a lot of fish. The salt culture, the local culture, which is at risk of disappearance, will once again have a story to tell through a new crop.”

For León, all this, rather than industry accolades, is what matters most. “I am much more excited about discovering new foods in the sea than any of my Michelin stars,” he says. “I think we will leave something more important, which is the discovery of the new ways of feeding ourselves in the future.”

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In the Peruvian Andes, "potato custodians" are preserving hundreds of varieties of this humble tuber.

‘Potato custodians’ are safeguarding their birthright

The Peruvian Andes, where most of the world's potato varieties can be found. Credit: CNN

On her wedding day, Esperanza Gabriel was gifted potatoes. So too was her husband Elmer Chavez, and in Huancavelica, in the Central Peruvian Andes, the couple have spent the last 20 years growing their inheritance side by side. Out of the earth they pull nuggets of deepest indigo, vivid pink, russet and the palest off-white; all lumps and bumps, they’re potatoes, but not as most of us know them.

Traditional potato varieties are being grown in Peru

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Gabriel and Chavez are “potato custodians.” Combined they grow some 300 of the 4,000 edible varieties, most native to the Andes. The two farmers, both from the indigenous Quechua community, grow the crops for sustenance and for sale, but they’re also an insurance policy -- for them, and perhaps one day for the rest of the world.

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Esperanza Gabriel photographed in the Peruvian Andes with potatoes from her land. Credit: Stef de Haan
Gabriel
Gabriel and her husband grow some 300 potato varieties. Credit: Stef de Haan

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Esperanza Gabriel photographed in the Peruvian Andes with potatoes from her land. Credit: Stef de Haan

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Gabriel and her husband grow some 300 potato varieties. Credit: Stef de Haan

“Where they grow potatoes is very risky,” says Stef de Haan, senior scientist at the International Potato Center, in Lima. Disease and harsh weather can both bite, and growing a wide variety “is a risk avoidance strategy.”

It’s a lesson in agricultural management. Potatoes are eaten by more than 1 billion people, and after rice and wheat are considered the world’s third most important food crop. But only a handful of varieties find their way into supermarkets. If varieties are grown in isolation as monocultures there’s the risk disease can rip through a crop, as was the case with blight and the “lumper” potato, cause of the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s (scientists would later discover resistance to the particular strain of rot in the genes of a South American potato).

“When it comes to food security and environmental protection, crop diversity is really the key for adaptation and the future,” de Haan explains. “If we don’t preserve the whole genetic base of these potatoes, it would basically mean that we have no options in the future.”

As president of farmers’ network AGUAPAN (Association of the Guardians of the Native Potato from Central Peru), Chavez also campaigns to ensure that indigenous knowledge and resources are not exploited. It keeps the future of the potatoes in the hands of people who have made them their lifeblood; recognition that these humble tubers are nothing without those who grow them.

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Esperanza Gabriel, Elmer Chavez and their family. Gabriel received potatoes as gifts on their wedding day and says she is teaching her daughters to carry on farming traditions. Credit: Stef de Haan

“(Their farms are) a laboratory that’s not managed by scientists,” says de Haan. “It’s a laboratory that is basically more than 10,000 years of evolution in the hands of farmers.”

The work, same as it ever was, continues. “My mother taught me,” says Gabriel. “Now I want to teach my daughters.”

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Climate change is impacting the region south of the Sahara, but can a resilient grain with deep roots in West Africa take off globally and help the environment too?

Fonio: A superfood for a hotter world?

Fonio is a small grain with a large cultural footprint in West Africa. Credit: CNN

In West Africa, a grain known as “the lazy farmer’s crop” is being viewed as a way to grow a nutritious staple in one of the world’s driest regions.

The Sahel is a region crossing 10 countries south of the Sahara, where temperatures are projected to rise 1.5 times higher than the global average. The ravages of climate change -- droughts and floods -- are already felt by its population of 300 million, with more than 10% considered food insecure according to the UN.

Resourcefulness is urgently needed in countries like Senegal. “We need to find plants that are adapted to the drought,” says Mame Codou Guèye, a researcher at the Centre for the Improvement of Adaptation to Drought (CERAAS) in Thies, Senegal. Cultivated in West Africa for around 7,000 years, fonio is “a model plant,” she says.

Fonio could be a climate-resilient crop for Senegal

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The fast-maturing cereal is unfussy and can grow in rocky, sandy or acidic soil, requiring little rain and no fertilizer. But fonio is not without its challenges.

Senegalese agricultural engineer Sanoussi Diakité says production has declined because the grain is difficult to process. Laborious pounding is required to remove the seeds from their husks, a drawback that led him to invent a machine in the 1990s capable of shelling five kilograms (11 pounds) of fonio in less than 10 minutes, a process which would otherwise take hours.

fonio
Sanoussi Diakité demonstrates his fonio processing machine. Credit: CNN

The technology may not yet be widespread, but the problem has only become more relevant as the virtues of fonio have come to mainstream attention, touted as a gluten-free alternative to wheat.

The grain is being seen as a potential export crop, and in the US, Senegalese expat chef-entrepreneur Pierre Thiam is raising fonio’s profile, cooking the grain for New York diners and selling fonio through Whole Foods and Amazon under the Yolélé brand.

Feeding the Sahel is the most immediate issue, however, and cultivating fonio could also have other benefits for the people of the region. Its extensive root system helps prevent soil erosion in a region beset with creeping desertification, and Diakité describes a “herbaceous carpet” left once the fonio is cultivated, that regenerates the soil.

“By developing fonio, we are encouraging the preservation of biodiversity,” says Diakité. “All of this makes the fonio important to the environment.”

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For centuries the breadfruit tree has provided for the people of Hawaii. Now, conservation efforts aim to secure its future on the islands.

Breadfruit: The tree of life

The breadfruit tree has had many uses in Hawaii, and now its fruit is being used in new foodstuffs. Credit: Patagonia Provisions

In Hawaii, some people still plant an ’ulu when a child is born. It’s the continuation of an age-old tradition involving a tree steeped in myth; a species native to New Guinea and brought to the Pacific archipelago by Polynesians who used its lightweight wood for canoes, wove its bark into textiles, used its leaves for medicinal purposes, its sap for weatherproofing and ate its large starchy fruit.

The “tree of life” truly did provide.

Later, ’ulu gained another name, breadfruit, given by Europeans who smelled bread as the fruit roasted in the fire. It continues to be an important food in traditional cuisine, but the tree finds itself being squeezed out by other agricultural crops that are increasingly being grown in the tropical sun.

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A breadfruit tree has cultural significance in Hawaii. Credit: Amy Kumler/Patagonia Provisions

Diane Ragone works for the Breadfruit Institute on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG). She wants to bring the fruit back into the spotlight. “The environmental benefits of a breadfruit tree are many,” she says. Its canopy slows down the rain, protecting the ground beneath from soil erosion, and it provides food for rare birds and other animals.

Reviving breadfruit production could benefit Hawaii

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Its presence also benefits humans, explains Noel Dickson, agronomist at the NTBG. Breadfruit, though difficult to grow in some climates, thrives in the tropics, requiring little attention compared to other crops. “It’s hard -- especially on Hawaii -- to be a farmer and make enough money to pay your bills,” says Dickson. “A lot of times it’s because you need tools or extra inputs like fertilizers. You can potentially cut those costs and diversify and utilize all of your land using ’ulu as the backbone of your agroforest.”

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Diane Ragone harvesting a breadfruit. Credit: Jim Wiseman

The fruit can be used differently at various stages: immature fruit is green and tastes like artichoke hearts, while mature fruit is starchy and similar to cassava or potato and can be baked or roasted, or dried and ground into flour. Male flowers can be candied and eaten as sweets.

The gluten-free carbohydrate is a source of fiber and minerals and its nutritional value has attracted the attention of Patagonia Provisions, a branch of the outdoors clothing brand, which has created a range of crackers made with breadfruit flour and sold across the US.

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A close up of the inside of a breadfruit. Credit: Jim Wiseman
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Patagonia Provisions’ crackers. Credit: Amy Kumler/Patagonia Provisions

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A close up of the inside of a breadfruit. Credit: Jim Wiseman

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Patagonia Provisions’ crackers. Credit: Amy Kumler/Patagonia Provisions

“My hope for the future of breadfruit (is) that we are bringing value to these agroforests, so they don't get cut down,” says Birgit Cameron, co-founder and head of Patagonia Provisions.

Introducing breadfruit to palates beyond the Pacific and Caribbean could encourage more people to grow it, and also spread the message that these traditional foods could help protect the planet, while feeding the world.

“It’s so important for humanity to have sustainable food crops … that are suitable for their growing conditions,” says Ragone.