This is the third and final post in my series on how we are responding to those twin threats to our food supply – climate change and peak oil. My own experience, from several decades of trying to grow my own food, is that self-sufficiency is not possible without both more land that I have in my tiny suburban garden, and a much more concerted effort than I’ve been able to muster. However, the biggest successes in my edible garden have been from perennial plants. They take much less work and produce far more food than most of the annual veggies I grow.
In the early 2000s, I started studying and implementing permaculture practices. I planted my garden with edible woody plants such as currants (Ribes spp.), hazelnuts (Corylus americana), a Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) and a serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).
About a decade later, I attended a talk by an amazing, if slightly mad, Englishman called Stephen Barstow. Barstow introduced me to the concept of “edimentals” – a term he uses to describe ornamental plants that are also edible. I loved the idea and bought a copy of his book. His Edimentals website contains hundreds of postings describing how he uses the many plants that grow in his garden. By the way, Bartstow’s garden is in northern Sweden, not far from the Arctic Circle. If he can grow it, then I can too, here in Ottawa. The big difference between edimentals and permaculture is the the former focuses much more on herbaceous, rather than woody, plants, and it introduced me to the idea of eating plants that I’m already growing for their looks. A couple of years ago, I even gave a short talk on this topic, which you can still find on YouTube. So let’s dive into how changing our diets might help save the planet, and how the twin threats of climate change and peak oil might force us to change our eating patterns anyway.
Two recent global events – COVID 19 and the war in Ukraine, serve to highlight the fragility of our globalized food system. More recently, a flurry of stories out of the UK highlight the perils of nationalism. Brexit has not worked out well for anyone in the UK interested in eating fresh food! See for example:
- UK farmers’ union says Vegetable shortages could be ‘tip of iceberg’
- Apples and pears could be next UK food shortage
Empty supermarket shelves symptomatic of a dysfunctional system
Writing in The Guardian UK, Jay Rayner puts current UK food shortages into the larger context of a food system where the retail sector is dominated by just a dozen companies and where food challenges are exacerbated by a government that prioritizes cheap food over healthy food from sustainable sources. He describes how local growers are being pushed off land so it can be used to build houses. He notes the idiocy of post-Brexit seasonal work visas that aren’t long enough for farmers to bring in workers for the full growing season. Then came the energy crisis. The government chose not to subsidise the energy costs of growers. Last week APS Group, one of the largest tomato growers in the country, admitted it had left some of its glasshouses unplanted for the first time in almost 75 years. Rayner argues that cheap food is not the answer. He writes, if we structure our food system so that those in poverty can access it, we will only further damage our agricultural base. We need on the one hand to deal with the functioning of our food system and on the other with poverty, with a chronically unequal distribution of wealth. We need to stop talking about food poverty and just call it poverty.
Can we produce all our own food?
One logical response to both climate change and peak oil is to shorten supply chains. Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands asked if nations could produce all their own food. According to the study published in One Earth (2023), for half of the world population the answer would be yes. For the other half: maybe? Leiden environmental researcher and head author Nicolas Navarre explains, “With improvements to crop yields, reductions in food waste, and changes in consumption patterns, 90% of people could live in countries that don’t need to trade for food.”
Using insects as food for humans and livestock
Giving a whole new twist to the term “grub’s up”, wo pairs of academics are making the case for using insects as a food source in Perspectives pieces published in the journal Science. The first pair, Arup Kumar Hazarika and Unmilan Kalita, with Cotton University and Barnagar College, respectively, both in India, argue that a strong case can be made for using insects to meet the growing need for food around the world in the coming years. Arnold van Huis with Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and Laura Gasco with the University of Torino in Italy argue that there is a strong case to be made for using insects as feed for livestock.
In the first paper, the authors note that humans eating insects is not novel. People have been eating them for as long as there have been people. And many people in the world today still eat them; however, most do not. In the second paper, the authors note that currently, most livestock feed is made from fishmeal and soybean meal. They also note that the production of meat worldwide uses between 70% and 80% of all agricultural land and yet produces about 25% of the protein consumed by humans. They suggest that replacing conventional feed with feed made from insects would free up large parcels of land now used to grow food for livestock. It would also be a healthier food source for the animals. Also, farming insects is likely to become more feasible as the planet continues to warm.
Cool things to know about pulses
Writing in The Conversation, researcher Nadia Radzman explores the food potential of an under-used category of plants. If insects aren’t to your taste, consider pulses. Each year on February 10, the United Nations commemorates what probably sounds to many like a strange occasion: World Pulses Day. But, as a researcher focused on forgotten and underutilised legumes, I think the initiative is an important step towards food security. Getting people to eat more pulses can ultimately help achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger. Pulses are the dried seeds of legumes. Among the promising aspects of pulses:
- The legumes that grow pulses thrive in poor soil and don’t require nitrogen-based fertilizers. In fact, most legumes fix their own nitrogen by forming symbiotic relationships with friendly bacteria known as rhizobia.
- Thanks to their nitrogen-fixing ability, pulses are nutritional powerhouses: high in protein and fibre, and low in fat.
- The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) comes in many varieties around the world. It’s able to fix nitrogen in different environments, making it a resilient legume species.
- Among the oldest domesticated plant, the pea (Pisum sativum) inspired Gregor Mendel’s pioneering work in plant genetics. The rich genetic diversity of the pea is also a valuable resource for important crop traits that can withstand various weather conditions due to climate change.
- Many pulses are drought tolerant and use less water for production than animal-sourced proteins, especially beef. Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) is known to be highly drought tolerant. Scientists are looking for beneficial traits that can reduce the yield loss in chickpeas during drought. This may contribute to a more secure food source in the midst of climate change.
- White lupins (Lupinus albus), yellow lupins (Lupinus luteus) and pearl lupins (Lupinus mutabilis) can form special roots to get more nutrients without the need for additional fertilisers. These plants have unique root modifications called cluster roots that can liberate phosphorus from soil particles when the nutrient is low. These cluster roots exude negatively charged compound called carboxylate that can liberate phosphorus from the soil and make it available for the plant to use. So lupins do not have to rely on phosphate fertilisers and can even help neighbouring plants by increasing the phosphorus level in the soil.
Bread made from a new type of flour keeps you fuller for longer
As an example of how useful pulses can be, consider this new types of bread made from whole cell pulse flour. It an can lower blood glucose (sugar) levels and keep you fuller for longer. A study published recently in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by researchers from King’s College London and the Quadram Institute looked at the effects of replacing regular wheat flour with ‘cellular chickpea flour’ on feelings of fullness, fullness-regulating hormones, insulin and blood sugar levels in people who ate it. The study is the first of its kind and is based on the design of a new pulse ingredient that is now being commercialized for food industry use as PulseON by Pulseon Foods Ltd. Eating healthy pulses including chickpeas, lentils and beans is known to help support healthy weight maintenance and decrease the risk of heart disease. A lot of the benefits seen from these foods are due to the fiber structure of the pulses themselves, with normal flour milling generally considered to reduce the beneficial effects of fiber structure. However, new methods in food technology developed by the scientists have allowed them to make whole cell flours that preserve the dietary fiber structure of the whole pulses, providing a new way to enrich flour-based food with beneficial nutritional qualities for improved health.
‘Ugly’ fruit and vegetables could tackle food waste
The world is facing a significant food waste problem, with up to half of all fruit and vegetables lost somewhere along the agricultural food chain. Globally, around 14% of food produced is lost after harvesting but before it reaches shops and supermarkets. The authors go on to elaborate the how consumers’ desire for perfect-looking food contributes to food waste. (If you thought women have difficulty living up to unreasonable expectations about our appearance, try being a vegetable!) When imperfect fruit and vegetables don’t make it to supermarket shelves, it can be due to cosmetic standards. Supermarkets and consumers often prefer produce of a fairly standard size that’s free of blemishes, scars and other imperfections. This means fruit and vegetables that are misshapen, discoloured, or even too small or too large, are rejected before they make it to supermarket shelves. A growing trend of selling such “ugly” fruit and vegetables, both by major supermarket chains, as well as speciality retailers appeals to some customers, but not others. So how can producers and retailers boost the amount of non-standard fruit and veg that not only reaches our shelves, but also our plates? Our recent research suggests a separate channel for selling ugly produce would increase profits for growers, lower prices for consumers and boost overall demand for produce. The researchers propose six strategies:
- Educating consumers
- Reducing supermarkets’ cosmetic standards
- Direct sales from farmers
- Encouraging supermarkets to donate ugly food instead of wasting it
- Using the ugly produce to create value-added food (e.g, for soups, casseroles, etc.)
- Composting anything that cannot be salvaged