GFAR blog

Forgotten foods – a manifesto for the future of food?

This think piece by Sayed Azam-Ali, OBE, is written as a reflection on the fourth installment in the GFAR Talks webinar series on the topic: “Forgotten foods are future foods: Bridging food sovereignty between generations. GFAR Talks is a showcase for debate on challenging and provocative topics related to agrifood system transformation, climate change and innovations in agriculture.

At a time of global crisis, it is alarming that most of our food comes from a handful of `staple’ crops grown in a few exporting countries. Whilst rich in calories, staple crops fail to properly nourish us – the effects of such a narrow diet mean that a quarter of humanity is overweight or obese, another quarter suffers from `hidden hunger,’ caused by poor diets, and one in eight people go hungry. Our globalized food system is vulnerable to external shocks, makes us unhealthy, causes environmental degradation, pollution and biodiversity loss, and is the source of over 30% of global carbon emissions. Can `forgotten foods’, the myriad of plant and animal species displaced by modern agriculture, hold the key to the future of food? Despite disinterest from the bulk of scientific research (often focused on genetic improvement of mainstream crops), academia, policy makers and much of the food industry, forgotten foods continue to be cultivated by local communities, often women, around the world. Many are nutritious and can contribute to greater food and nutrition security, better livelihoods and healthier communities. They often grow in environments that are marginal for more favoured crops and can increase the genetic diversity and resilience of farming systems. Enhancing their value can also have positive effects on the self-esteem and self-confidence of farmers through recognition of their own experimentation capacities and knowledge systems.  

A farmer threshing teff with a shovel. Photo credit: FAO

Given their potential, why have forgotten foods been ignored for so long by research, sponsors, policy makers and the food industry? One reason is that, until now, those who advocate, research, grow, sell and consume forgotten foods have not spoken with a united voice that includes farmers’ own views and understanding. Launched in 2021, the Global Manifesto on Forgotten Foods calls for a radical transformation of our food system. The outcome of regional consultations in Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East involving thousands of individuals and institutions, including several farmers’ grassroot organizations, the Manifesto sets out a framework of `collective actions’ where smallholder communities are the agents of change and co-producers of new knowledge and practices.  As well as diversifying food systems, these collective actions contribute to many of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, as well as the ‘Right to Food’ and the ‘Right to Health’ embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For millennia, smallholder farmers have been at the heart of the conservation and sustainable use of what are now forgotten foods. They can also become the recognized centres of innovation that links traditional knowledge and practices with novel technologies, digital tools and new ways of farming but this requires a different approach, equitable partnerships and investment. Forgotten foods have been neglected and underfunded in terms of research and innovation, extension, conservation and commercialization. The expertise of smallholders has rarely been integrated into research, leaving farming communities as beneficiaries rather than protagonists of technologies developed in their name and on their behalf. The study of forgotten foods is also absent from educational programmes, their management is ignored by extension services, their seeds are often missing from gene banks, their marketing and product development are rudimentary, they do not appear in recipes, cooking shows or public feeding programmes.

The Manifesto on Forgotten Foods calls for major investments in forgotten foods, policy and economic support to overcome social, cultural and gender inequalities and a new research and innovation agenda based on 10 priorities, supported by an evidence base of their nutritional, medicinal and cultural values and climate resilience. It identifies the need for co-creation of new knowledge and skills between farmers and scientists that allow better access to markets, diverse supply chains and healthier foods as part of a shift to a green and circular economy. This needs policies and investments that help smallholder farmers build sustainable businesses based on forgotten foods whilst protecting farmers and indigenous communities rights and knowledge.

There is also an important cultural aspect to forgotten foods since many are embedded in ethnic identities, traditions and ancient belief systems. Forgotten foods are profoundly rooted in small scale producers and indigenous peoples own perceptions. Their wider adoption can empower rural communities, notably youth and women, through enterprises that add social, cultural, environmental and economic value to food systems. But to succeed, the collective actions proposed in the Manifesto need to be based on equal partnerships between communities with knowledge and wisdom about forgotten foods and a new generation of farmers, researchers and sponsors with technologies, inventive mind sets and data – an intergenerational knowledge brokerage of innovation and evidence for the transformation of food systems now and into the future.

Of the 7000 or more crops cultivated throughout our history, just four (wheat, rice, maize and potatoes) provide over 60% of the human diet. Those who say that the ambitions of the Global Manifesto on Forgotten Foods are unrealistic must explain to future generations how a handful of crops grown as monocultures will not just feed but nourish 10 billion people on a hotter planet without destroying the natural ecosystems and the cultural identities behind them on which we all depend.

Watch the recording of the fourth GFAR Talks webinar, featuring Christine Gould, the Founder and CEO of Thought for Food and Irish Baguilat, the AFA Coordinator for UN Decade of Family Farming & Women Farmers’ Agenda:

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARTalks.

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