Kocho, a food produced from enset, served with honey and red pepper sauce.
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Earlier this year, UK shoppers faced a shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables, with some grocery stores across the country rationing produce like tomatoes, lettuce and peppers.
The reasons for the scarcity of ingredients crucial for a tasty salad were complex and varied, ranging from high energy prices to unfavorable weather conditions in supplier countries.
Although the shortage has more or less eased, it has highlighted the fragility of our food system and the enormous importance of food security.
In 2022, a major report of the United Nations have shown the extent of the problem.
“Between 702 and 828 million people were affected by hunger in 2021,” says the report on the state of food security and nutrition in the world.
The UN report highlighted the “main drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition: conflict, climate extremes and economic shocks, combined with growing inequalities”.
With growing concerns about the effects of climate change on the agricultural sector, what we grow and eat could be on the cusp of significant change.
Cultures unfamiliar to many of us could have a crucial role to play in the years to come. In June 2022, scientists from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kewlisted several food sources that could play an important role in future diets.
They include algae; cactus like the prickly pear; a kind of wild coffee able to cope with much hotter temperatures than Arabica coffee; and enset, also known as false banana.
“Enset is a relative of the banana,” James Borrell, head of trait diversity and function research at RBG Kew, told CNBC.
“But whereas a banana comes from Southeast Asia and you eat the fruit, enset comes from Africa and was domesticated – and only grown in Ethiopia,” he said. added.
“You’re actually eating the entire trunk, or pseudostem, and the underground bulb.”
“Something like 15 plants could feed a person for a year, so it’s… very big, and it’s very productive.”
The enset plant in Ethiopia. Enset is also known as “the tree against hunger”.
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In terms of food security, the potential of enset — also known as the “tree against hunger” — seems considerable.
Borrell told CNBC that he possesses a combination of traits and characteristics that are “very unusual in cultures.”
“First of all, it’s a perennial, and so it continues to grow every year if you don’t harvest it,” he said.
A fruit tree can also be perennial, he noted, “but it only produces fruit at a certain time of the year – so you either have to consume it then or store it.”
With enset, however, “you eat the whole thing…so the fact that it gets bigger every year, you can just harvest it when you need it.”
A ‘food bank account’
This, Borrell said, makes it particularly useful for subsistence farmers working on multiple crops.
“If one year your other crops fail, or they don’t yield enough, you can eat a bit more of your enset,” he said.
“If you have a good year for your other crops, you can eat a little less of your enset.” This means that enset could “alleviate seasonal food insecurity”.
“For a subsistence farmer, this is an incredible product,” he added.
“It’s like a food bank account, it’s like a green asset that you can nurture and nurture and if you don’t use it, it just keeps accumulating.”
At present, RGB Kew says enclosed provides food for 20 million people in Ethiopia, but the organization adds it “could be a climate-smart crop for the future” thanks to its “high yield and resistance to long periods of drought”.
At the end of 2021, researchers based in the UK and Ethiopia, including Borrell, published a paper in environmental research which provided a tantalizing glimpse of the role he could play in the future.
“We find that despite a very restricted current distribution, there is significant potential for the expansion of climate-resilient ensets both in Ethiopia and throughout eastern and southern Africa,” the authors said.
Kocho, produced from the enset plant, photographed in Ethiopia.
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Could enset cultivation then spread from Ethiopia to other parts of the world, buffering other cultures in the process?
“The very important caveat is that this is an Ethiopian crop,” Borrell said.
“And so those kinds of decisions are entirely up to Ethiopia…it’s Ethiopia’s indigenous knowledge, and it’s Ethiopian farmers who have spent thousands of years domesticating it.”
“So while we can talk about what the potential is and if it would work, it’s not for us to say if it should happen and if it can happen.”
It is therefore unlikely that people outside of Ethiopia will soon see enset on their plate.
Nonetheless, its resilience and importance in supporting supply for farmers illustrates how practices steeped in tradition can have a big part to play in how we think about and consume food.
“It’s an incredible culture, with incredible indigenous knowledge behind it,” Borrell said.
“I think the message is that this is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of underutilized cultures that aren’t particularly well researched and aren’t widely known. “
“So for every plant that we’re talking about, like enset, there are many more that might have…particular combinations of traits that might help us meet a challenge we’re facing.”