Recognise superfoods to shift dietary needs towards sustainable crops

The food space is rapidly changing, and it presents an opportunity for the food industry and researchers to cater to the demand of consumers fitting their changing lifestyles and expectations

Image for representational purpose only!
By Dr Shivendra Bajaj

Sustainable food production with a low carbon footprint is being demanded not only by researchers and environmentalists but also by consumers across the globe. This awareness could benefit us by enabling the changes required in the way we grow, process and consume food.

This is also in line with the Sustainable Development Goal No.12 ‘Responsible consumption and production’ which the Governments are expected to deliver by 2030.

The food space is rapidly changing, and it presents an opportunity for the food industry and researchers to cater to the demand of consumers fitting their changing lifestyles and expectations.  Demand is emerging for fresher and natural food, which is less processed, containing less preservatives, or are even free from artificial additives, nutritionally advantageous with less content of salt, sugar or fat, are safer food and having low impact on the environment.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock farming and hence consumers are readily shifting towards plant-based diet to put less pressure on the environment. Red meat production of 1 Kg consumes 5Kg of agricultural produce and reducing meat consumption will reduce pressure on land.

It is estimated that the rapid growth of the meat-free or animal-free industry (plant-based meat) has the potential to capture 10% of the $1.4 trillion global meat industry. In fact, in next decade the market for alternative meat can reach $140 billion according to an analysis done by Barclays. These data hold water since majority of the consumers are now increasingly concerned about the carbon footprint that they leave behind with their actions.

Further, the population is set to touch 9.7 billion by 2050 and a large number of natural resources have to be deployed by the farmers. It is unreasonable that majority of the population depends on water intensive crops like rice, potato, banana etc. Therefore, one needs to take a step towards consuming climate friendly crops or alternative foods which uses natural resources efficiently and are less water guzzlers.  Springmann, the co-author of a report on the climate and health “co-benefits” of dietary change argues that transitioning toward plant-based diets could limit food-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70% by 2050 and reduce global mortality by up to 10%.

Changing gears at the right time

Shifting our focus to other foods like horsegram, cowpea, moth bean, cluster bean etc can help to achieve the above objectives. These legumes are climate-friendly source of minerals and proteins. They do not require greenhouse-gas-emitting fertilizers as they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. These crops are resistant to drought, soils with poor fertility and can adapt itself to harsh conditions. Inclusion of legumes in inter cropping reduces the risk of soil erosion and depletion and also has higher soil carbon sequestration potential.

Understanding the needs of the consumers who are looking for healthier options, high-end restaurants are now experimenting with plants which have been known safe for consumption but have not been as widely used. Spirulina is one such fresh water micro-alga, known for its energetic properties – it contains minerals, proteins, antioxidants and 60% of proteins. It needs less land and water to produce protein and energy. Both NASA and European Space Agency advocated Spirulina in the 1980s and early 90s as one of the primary foods to be cultivated during long-term space missions. Moringa, also known as drumstick tree, is an extraordinary plant which is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and vegetable proteins. It also has medicinal and health benefits such as antifungal, antiviral, antidepressant, and anti-inflammatory properties. Moringa is particularly suitable for dry regions, as it can be grown using rainwater without expensive irrigation techniques. While the plant is native to India and are extensively consumed by the Southern, Northern, Eastern and North-Eastern regions of India, it has found a niche market globally and in fine dining because of its numerous benefits.

Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute derived from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana and it has 30 to 150 times the sweetness of sugar, are heat-stable, pH-stable, and not fermentable. With zero calories and having natural anti-oxidant properties, the plant is a native to Brazil and Paraguay and several studies have found that the use of stevia sweeteners as replacements for sugar might be beneficial for a diabetic, children and people who wish to lower their intake of calories. Legally, the plant can be grown in many countries, but it’s uses and maximum dosage of the extract and derived products vary widely from country to country. Commercially it is added in carbonated water, dairy-based desserts, ready-to-eat cereals, fruit nectars, jams and teabags.

There are several companies who are looking for alternatives in addition to plants and thus algae were discovered in the sea as natural food source having high nutrition. High-end restaurants are experimenting with their menus for several decades and one can see these algae’s being added to protein bars, probiotic shots, and even cocktail mixers. Another superfood which is slowly recognised for its unusual benefits is Baobab tree which is a native to African continent. These trees can live more than 1000 years and the oldest tree recorded is the Panke baobab, lived for more than 2500 years. They help to keep soil conditions humid and prevents soil erosion. The baobab fruit has many essential nutrients like Vitamin C (7-10 times more than oranges), fiber (30 times more than lettuce), magnesium (5 times more than avocadoes), Potassium (6 times more than bananas) and calcium (2 times more than cow’s milk). In 2008, the European Union approved the use and consumption of baobab fruit and is now commonly used as an ingredient in smoothies and cereal bars. In 2009, the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) granted generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status to baobab dried fruit pulp as a food ingredient.

Consumers are now moving from meat burgers to plant-based burgers. Many renowned international chains are ready to include it on their menu because of the demand. With changing weather patterns, less rainfall to support the food production system, increasing pressure on farmers to grow more food, we need to recognize these superfoods which are available in our region and reap benefits out of it which will ease the pressure on the environment.

About Author: Dr Shivendra Bajaj is the Executive Director of Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII). He drives public policies and advocates for the adoption of seed and biotechnology policy, innovation, new technologies, breeding applications in the agriculture sector. Dr Bajaj works with stakeholders such as central and state governments, regulators, media to inform and educate them about the role and benefits of biotechnology for farmers.

*Views expressed by the author are his own.