While energy and transportation systems receive a bulk of the blame for climate change, worldwide agricultural practices account for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and vastly underrepresents the wealth of edible plants available on our planet.

In February 2019, the World Wide Fund for Nature (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) and Knorr foods published “Future 50 Foods: 50 Foods for Healthier People and a Healthier Planet.” The report analyzed 50 underutilized plant-based food sources based on their nutritional value, environmental impact, flavor, accessibility, acceptability and affordability. It also included these frankly astonishing statistics about the world’s current agricultural system.

  • Animal agriculture leads to approximately 60 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produce by farming.
  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are between 20,000 and 50,000 edible plant species on Earth. Humans are eating less than 200 of them.
  • 75 percent of the global food supply is made up of 12 plants and five animal species.
  • In most diets, wheat, corn and rice comprise nearly 60 percent of the plant-based calories consumed.
  • 75 percent of the genetic plant diversity in agriculture has been lost since 1900.

How to encourage agrobiodiversity

Growing up in the Midwest, I drove through countless acres of corn and wheat fields without giving a second thought to farming practices. According to the WWF/Knorr report, monoculture farming – which occurs globally – is shockingly unsustainable for both humans and wildlife and has contributed to a rapid decrease in animal species in the last half-century.

Basically, sowing and harvesting the same few crops over and over depletes soil nutrients and leaves crops susceptible to diseases and pests, which leads to a greater reliance on potentially harmful fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Further, monoculture farming replaces natural, species-diverse ecosystems with vast areas of a single plant species. This leads to vast food deserts that are uninhabitable to native plants and animals. Picture a bumblebee searching for pollen in the vastness of a square-mile cornfield. Now multiply that by the countless square miles of cornfields in the world.

The report suggests that consumers can catalyze change in agriculture practices by replacing standbys like corn, wheat and rice with lesser-grown crops like millet, quinoa and sprouts. Relying less on monoculture crops can signal the agriculture industry that consumers are ready for greater variety in their diets. The goal is agrobiodiversity – where a wide variety of crops, native plants, soil organisms, livestock and wild animals interact sustainably.

Some of the simpler options include buying (or growing) orange tomato varieties instead of mass-produced red varieties. Swap spinach for iceberg lettuce. Replace animal protein with plant protein. Each time a less frequently grown food option is chosen, agrobiodiversity is encouraged.

Screenshot from the Future 50 Foods report.

What’s on the list?

The list is divided into 11 categories of plant-foods found across the world. Many can be found at farmer’s markets, health food stores and grocery chains, while others might take more searching to find. The categories and some of the more accessible foods are listed below.

  • Algaes – Nutrient and protein rich, responsible for half of all oxygen production on earth.
    • Laver seaweed
    • Wakame seaweed
  • Beans & Pulses – Purify nitrogen in the air, rich in protein and B vitamins, meat substitute.
    • Fava beans
    • Cowpeas
    • Lentils
    • Soybeans – Three quarters are grown for livestock and consumed via beef. Why not cut cattle out of the equation?
  • Cacti – Drought tolerant, high in C and E vitamins, fiber and amino acids.
    • Nopales or prickly pear
  • Cereals & Grains – Staple crop for humans, only a few of the many varieties are grown.
    • Amaranth
    • Buckwheat
    • Millet
    • Kamut ® or Khorasan wheat
    • Quinoa – over 3,000 varieties, look for lesser-grown ones.
    • Wild Rice
A tasty-looking pumpkin flower from the author’s garden. Photo by Sam Wigness.
  • Fruit vegetables – Vegetable-like fruits including squash, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and zucchini – consider growing your own!
    • Pumpkin flowers
    • Orange tomatoes
    • Okra
  • Leafy Greens – Versatile and nutritious, easily grown in the PNW, contain fiber, vitamins and minerals.
    • Beet greens
    • Kale
    • Pak-choi or bok-choy
    • Spinach
    • Watercress
    • Pumpkin leaves
  • Mushrooms – More than 2,000 edible varieties of fungi that grow where plant-foods do not!
    • Enoki
    • Maitake
    • Saffron milk cap
  • Nuts & Seeds – Many classified as “superfoods,” high in protein, E vitamins and good fats.
    • Flax seeds
    • Hemp seeds – Potential for food, paper, renewable plastic, clothes and biofuel
    • Sesame seeds
    • Walnuts – consumed by humans for 10,000 years, grow all year round
  • Root Vegetables – Cold-hardy, easy to store, packed vitamins and minerals. Grow your own!
    • Black salsify
    • Parsley root
    • White radish – Matures from seed to harvest in one month
  • Sprouts – Double or triple the nutritional value of the plant (some risk of foodborne illness involved).
    • Alfalfa sprouts
    • Sprouted kidney beans – three times the nutrition of unsprouted beans
  • Tubers – High in carbohydrates and other nutrients, swap for mass-produced potatoes.
    • Lotus root
    • Ube (Purple yam)
    • Yam bean root (Jicama)
    • Red Indonesian sweet potato (Cilembu)