Our world is facing an unprecedented challenge
By 2050 the world population is predicted to increase to almost ten billion people whom we must nourish on a planet of finite resources. It is well-documented that to do this we need to transform our global food system – from the way we farm and fish to what we choose to eat. It is a complex task, and if we are to deliver nutritious food to all, everyone needs to play a part in making the food system more sustainable. Large scale, practical solutions are essential to make the required changes. Globally we rely on a small range of foods. This negatively impacts our health and the health of the planet. Seventy-five percent of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species. Just three (rice, maize, wheat) make up nearly 60 percent of calories from plants in the entire human diet1.
This excludes many valuable sources of nutrition. While people may be getting sufficient calories, these narrow diets don’t provide enough vitamins and minerals. Dietary monotony is linked to a decline in the diversity of plants and animals used in and around agriculture (agrobiodiversity), threatening the resilience of our food system and limiting the breadth of food we can eat. Since 1900, a staggering 75 percent of the genetic plant diversity in agriculture has been lost2. In most Asian countries, the number of rice types grown has decreased rapidly from thousands to a dozen. In Thailand, for example, the 16,000 varieties once cultivated have dropped to just 37 varieties3. In the past century, the United States has lost 80 percent of its cabbage, pea and tomato varieties. This dependence on a limited pool of crop species leaves harvests vulnerable to pests, diseases and the impact of climate change.
Farming a narrow range of crops using intensive methods can have serious repercussions on our fragile natural ecosystems. Monoculture farming, which is the repeated harvesting of a single crop, and over-reliance on animal-based foods are threatening food security. Monoculture farming can deplete nutrients and leave soil vulnerable to the build-up of pests and pathogens. This requires applications of fertilisers and pesticides that can, if used inappropriately, damage wildlife and leach into water systems4, 5. Many types of birds, animals and wild plants cannot thrive in biologically degraded landscapes.
Reliance on animal-based protein sources puts additional strain on our environment and current agricultural practices are not sustainable in the long term. Total agriculture accounts for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, of which approximately 60 percent is due to animal agriculture6. Meat, dairy and egg production is more water, land and greenhouse gas intensive than plant production. It also contributes to pollution through liquid waste discharged into rivers and seas.
These problems seem insurmountable, but we believe that large scale change starts with small actions.
Eating to improve the food system
Knorr and WWF have a shared ambition to drive change, which is why we, in partnership with Dr. Adam Drewnowski, Director of The Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, have collaborated to create The Future 50 Foods Report.
In a world cluttered with advice and pressure around what not to eat, we want to provide people with more food choices to empower positive change. For this reason, we have identified 50 foods we should eat more of because they are nutritious, have a lower impact on our planet than animal-based foods, can be affordable, accessible and taste good.
The list of Future 50 Foods, consisting of vegetables, grains, cereals, seeds, legumes and nuts from across the globe, has been developed to inspire greater variety in what we cook and eat. It is intended to enable three important dietary shifts. First, a greater variety of vegetables to increase intake of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Second, plant-based sources of protein to replace meat, poultry and fish, resulting in reduced negative impact on our environment. Third, more nutrient-rich sources of carbohydrates to promote agrobiodiversity and provide more nutrients.
Not all 50 foods are currently easily accessible. Working together with partners allows us to make these foods more commonly grown and more widely eaten.
By making a conscious choice to consume more of the Future 50 Foods, we take a crucial step towards improving the global food system. Swapping staples like maize and white rice for fonio or spelt increases the nutrient content of a dish while contributing to greater agrobiodiversity, making our food supply more resilient. It also helps safeguard these ancient variants for future generations.
These 50 foods are some of the many that we can and should eat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there are between 20,000 and 50,000 discovered edible plant species, of which only 150 to 200 are regularly consumed by humans7.
Future 50 Foods is the beginning of a journey and a way for people to make a change, one delicious dish at a time.
Principles & Methodology
Experts in food sustainability, agriculture and nutrition collaborated to identify and shortlist the foods in this report. The Future 50 Foods guiding principles and five-step methodology are summarised below.
Promote Agrobiodiversity and Dietary Diversity:
Current agriculture is dominated by 12 crops and five animals1. According to FAOSTAT, based on 2016 data, those 12 crops are barley, cassava, corn, palm fruit oil, potatoes, rice, soy beans, sugar beets, sugar cane, tomatoes, vegetables not elsewhere specified and wheat. In keeping with the goal of increasing dietary diversity, 11 of these common crops were not included. After consultation with experts, soy beans were included on the list due to their high nutritional value, recognising that a large percentage of production is for animal feed. Less familiar varieties and less commonly consumed parts of the remaining above-mentioned crops were considered.
Stimulate a shift towards plant-based foods:
Rearing animals for food is associated with significant greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to plants, meat and dairy production is more water, land and greenhouse gas intensive. A variety of different plant-based foods can provide comparable nutrients to animal products with lower environmental impact. This list includes protein-rich, plant-based foods that can be eaten in addition to, or in place of, sources of meat-based protein.
Consider environmental impact of farming practices:
The environmental impact data are based on standard farming practices sourced via publicly available information. Average yield and greenhouse gas emissions, relative to similar crops, have been considered. Transport emissions have not been considered as they account for less than two percent of the overall greenhouse gas footprint of food.
Focus on nutrient content of raw, unprocessed foods:
For consistency within the food groups, the nutritional values reflect the foods in their raw, unprocessed state. Cutting, cooking or processing the foods in any way may change their nutritional value.
Optimise nutrient balance across food groups:
The distribution of food groups enables swaps to more sustainable, diverse and nutritious foods. This includes many different types of nutrient rich vegetables, good sources of plant-based protein and a wide variety of sources of carbohydrates.
The list of Future 50 foods includes:
13 cereals, grains, tubers:
For both environmental and health reasons, there is a pressing need to vary the types of grains and cereals grown and eaten. The inclusion of a variety of sources of carbohydrates supports the ambition to enable a shift towards a greater variety of nutritious foods.
12 beans, legumes, sprouts:
Plant-based protein sources are included to support a shift towards eating more plants and fewer animals. Beans and legumes also enrich the soil in which they are grown and support the recovery of land as part of crop rotation.
With very few exceptions, most people around the world do not get the recommended amount of at least 200 grams (or three servings) of vegetables per day. Vegetables are nutrient packed and can easily and affordably be added to commonly consumed meals.
Mushrooms are included because of their nutritional benefits and unique ability to grow in areas unsuitable for other edible plants. Their texture and umami flavour enable them to be adequate meat alternatives.
4 nuts and seeds:
Nuts and seeds serve as plant-based sources of protein and fatty acids (omega 3 and 6) which can support a transition away from meat-based diets while ensuring optimum nutrition. They can be added to a wide variety of dishes for extra crunch and a nutrient boost.
Focus on savory foods:
Most calories consumed are from savoury meals. To make the greatest impact on global food choices, the foods in this list can all be used in savoury meals.
This article was excerpted from the Future 50 Foods report published by WWF and Knorr. The full report can be downloaded here.
1 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. What is agrobiodiversity? Fact sheet [in English]. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5609e/y5609e01.htm#bm1 [Last accessed November 2018]. FAOSTAT data avaialble at: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QC [Last accessed November 2018]
2 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. What is happening to agrobiodiversity? [In English]. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5609e/y5609e02.htm#bm2 [Last accessed November 2018]
3 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Biodiversity and nutrition: A Common path – Fact Sheets [in English]. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/food_composition/documents/upload/Interodocumento.pdf [Last accessed November 2018]
4 Dybzinski R, et al. Soil fertility increases with plant species diversity in a long-term biodiversity experiment Oecologia. 2008;18:85–93.
5 Snapp SS, et al. Biodiversity can support a greener revolution in Africa. Proc Nat Acad Sci. 2014;107(48):20840–45.
6 CCAFS Food Emissions – Direct Agricultural Emissions. [ONLINE] Available at: https://ccafs.cgiar.org/bigfacts/data/theme/food-emissions/Theme_2_Food_Emissions_2_Direct_Agricultural_Emissions.pdf [Last accessed November 2018] and Sejian V. et al. (2015) Global Warming: Role of Livestock. In: Sejian V., Gaughan J., Baumgard L., Prasad C. (eds) Climate Change Impact on Livestock: Adaptation and Mitigation. Springer, New Delhi
7 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2004. What is happening to agrobiodiversity? [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5609e/y5609e02.htm [Last accessed November 2018]