Why More Restaurants Should Put Biodiversity on the Menu
Our current food system is built on fragile foundations. Practices like monocropping have degraded our soils and greatly reduced our natural biodiversity, and depending on a limited range of crops renders our food supply vulnerable to drought, pests, disease outbreaks and a rapidly changing climate.
Furthermore, our industrial approach to food production has greatly restricted our diet. It may seem like we have an incredible array of foods available to us – buying tropical fruits in the UK, or sourcing tomatoes at any time of the year – but our diets are, in truth, narrow and repetitive. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), humans have eaten around 6,000-7,000 plant species over the course of our existence. We now eat a miniscule fraction of this number, with a staggering 50% of all calories coming from just three plants: rice, wheat and maize.
This affects our health as well as the environment. As hunter gatherers, we ate a vast array of foods, and archaeological research has shown that the health of populations declined significantly after the advent of agriculture, as our dietary range shrank considerably. Industrial agriculture and a continued narrowing of genetic diversity in what we plant, grown and eat has brought this to entirely new levels – but diverse diets remain crucial for our health. There are also social implications, as indigenous and local communities struggle to maintain their livelihoods and cultural heritage and traditional foodways are lost to the ages.
The simple act of choosing foods outside of the mainstream few can have far-reaching consequences. Foods like these are more likely to come from small-scale agriculture using sustainable methods, and are more likely to have a more impressive nutritional profile and flavour; much has been lost in the industrialisation of our food systems. Choosing foods like these also helps to preserve our planet’s edible biodiversity as well as our cultural heritage.
What does this mean for restaurants?
With the climate and biodiversity crises at critical points, our food choices will make all the difference to tomorrow’s food landscape. This means that designing a menu needs to become a conscious and responsible act as well as one of creativity; ingredients should be chosen with both environmental impact and nutrition in mind.
Restaurants have the opportunity to inform, guide and facilitate climate-friendly choices at consumer level. By actively championing biodiversity through sourcing and on menus, chefs can build consumer interest in more diverse ingredients. This can help to strengthen our food systems, support farmers and producers and improve public health. It can also boost creativity and give your restaurant the chance to stand out from the crowd. Read on for some suggestions of less familiar foods you should consider for your menu.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but the best hope of saving many of our endangered species from extinction is to put them on more plates. Before we get any angry phone calls, we’re not suggesting that you start dishing up white rhino or Sumatran tiger; while these may be the sort of animal that springs to mind when you think ‘endangered’, many of the species we’re close to losing are actually heritage varieties of livestock like cows, pigs, sheep and chickens.
Raising heritage breeds in their native climates, on natural diets and with the integrated use of manure, is likely to result in healthy animals while also supporting the soils, plant life and natural biodiverse ecosystems on and around the farm. In many cases, farmers like this are also directly responsible for keeping these species in existence. As Slow Food puts it, we need to ‘eat it to save it’.
Increased consumer demand for heritage breeds with dwindling numbers can support biodiversity as well as more ecologically sustainable farming systems and rural farming communities. Since they are naturally adapted for local conditions – and haven’t been bred to grow as quickly as possible at the expense of everything else – the rare breeds native to your region are also likely to have superior flavour compared to much commercial meat. Anyone who has sampled outdoor-reared rare breed pork alongside that from industrially-farmed pigs will agree.
Landraces are ancient varieties of our modern, standardised crops. Because these populations behave in natural ways, happily cross pollinating between populations, they have widely varying gene pools and are consequently better equipped to deal with disease, pest outbreaks or climate shocks. Farmers of landraces use the seeds from successful plants to create next year’s crop, a simple but effective method that humans have used as long as we’ve been farming.
While their yields are typically lower, landrace varieties stand a much better chance of surviving in adverse conditions that can wipe out vast swathes of modern crops. Furthermore, even with lower yields, farmers of diverse landrace crops often see productivity and profit go up as they spend less on fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Because modern varieties have been selected and bred for yield above all else, other valuable things have been lost: nutritional qualities like fibre, vitamins and minerals, and less tangible attributes like flavour.
With climate and food security concerns ever more pressing, we’ve started to see a revived interest in diversification. The UN hailed 2023 as the “The Year of Millets” in an effort to revive ancient cereals cultivated for millennia. Indigenous to Indian, China and sub-Saharan Africa, millets are some of the oldest grains known to humanity. These cereals are hardy and resilient, tolerant of poor soils, drought and harsh growing conditions, and can adapt to different environments without reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilisers – providing a reliable source of food for vulnerable populations (and stable income for farmers) through periods of scarcity. Rich in carbohydrates, dietary fibre, B vitamins, iron and essential minerals, millets are also nutrient-dense – notably more so than wheat or rice.
Millets are just one example; there is a wealth of similar landrace grains out there just waiting to be rediscovered, cultivated, explored and enjoyed on menus. We all witnessed the meteoric rise of quinoa; now it’s time for millets, teff, einkorn, amaranth and other varieties to step into the spotlight.
In 2019, a Global Assessment Report from The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that invasive alien species are one of the five most important direct drivers of biodiversity loss – alongside changes in land- and sea-use, direct exploitation of species, climate change and pollution. In September 2023, a follow-up report was published. Produced by 86 experts from 49 countries, working for more than four-and-a-half years, it draws on more than 13,000 references, including significant contributions from Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
While preventing the migration of these species in the first place is the best option, we are still left with those that have already made the journey. One smart solution is to put these non-native species on menus, controlling populations and protecting local ecosystems by driving demand. Read a guest blog here from Winifred Adeyemi, Africa Seen & Heard, sharing some fantastic examples of how restaurants around the world are stepping up to this challenge and serving up mouth-watering, sustainable dishes from invasive species.
Rethinking your menus with biodiversity in mind
We can save biodiverse species of plants and animals in seed banks and by leaving more spaces wild – but we can also save them on our farms, in our kitchens and on our plates.
When it comes to sourcing, start exploring foods that go beyond that small list of commodity crops; ancient grains, heritage breeds and invasive species are a fantastic place to begin the broadening of your culinary horizons. Look for what you haven’t seen on other menus, build trustworthy relationships with farmers in your network and offer them encouragement and practical support in cultivating and rearing unusual and heritage varieties. In return, enjoy a wealth of inspiration and increased creativity as your chefs explore what they can do with these new ingredients – many of which have better flavour than their modern, homogenous, high-yield counterparts.
Farmers can’t afford to grow what we don’t eat; it’s up to restaurants to bridge the gap between farms and diners, supporting more variety in our agricultural systems and translating this into creative and delicious meals that spark conversation and – crucially – inspire demand.
Make sure your kitchen stays curious; the future of our food systems depends on it.
Follow our #EatForTomorrow campaign to discover more about eating for diversity and other inspiring ways that our food choices can change the future. Don’t miss these incredible stories – find us on Instagram and LinkedIn to follow along.
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