Grow Weeds and Eat Less Meat, says Botanist


Plenty of food for thought with ethnobotanist and plant scientist, James Wong, who tackled some interesting and sometimes controversial points of food waste, importing food, eating seasonally and meat production at the Oxford Farming Conference. 

Harping back to how good food was in the past and driving home the wonders of seasonality, as celeb chefs and the media tend to do, aren’t actually truisms according to Mr Wong, who trained at Kew Gardens and is a regular panellist on Radio 4's Gardner's Question Time. It ignores the mineral deficiencies found in the population in the past and he argued that access to different foods from around the world has given the population a better, more balanced diet than ever.

“We live in the world with most plentiful, safe and nutritious - and affordable - food supply in the history of humanity.”

The TV presenter, also seen on Countryfile, and author of Grow Your Own Drugs, also argued that in the UK, consumers and producers should not get hung up on importing food, as not only does it allow us to have a diverse diet, but that trade is very important both ways.

To counter the oft-cited environmental argument, he said transport only accounts for 6% of carbon emissions, while there is a much greater population outside the UK, than inside it, to which to sell and potentially at a premium. For food producers to make the most of the opportunity, he said that Britain has to get better at telling the story of its food - a British flag on packaging is not enough -  to secure a better price on exports.

Mr Wong forecasts the world will need to produce 70% more food by 2050, more than the percentage increase in population because not only are more people surviving but they are wealthier and able to access markets so demand is higher than need. 

“While demand is exponentially increasing, our ability to produce is arguably decreasing,” he said, so to tackle the challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2050, Mr Wong proposed options that would have less impact on the environment while also increasing food production. 

Reducing food waste was top of the list, not just in the supply chain which is often harangued for being careless, but mostly in the home where it is at its worst in the developing world. 

Mr Wong highlighted the pressure that fresh produce puts on the environment, and that frozen food has - according to one study - 50% less environmental impact, as well as tending to lead to less waste. Almost all frozen food is eaten, whereas fresh is often thrown away once it is past its best before date. 

Mr Wong’s other points focused on producing meat and vegetables with less environmental impact. Meat production poses issues for both efficiency and the environment in Mr Wong’s book. He accepted that there are many areas where crops cannot be grown, and which are more suitable for livestock. However he cited one report in the Oxford Martin that said greenhouse gases could be hugely reduced and eight million people could be saved by 2050 by keeping meat production down.

“I am not telling people to produce less meat. What I am saying is on a global level the amount of meat that makes up the proportion of our diet needs to reduce, and in some developing countries they need more protein so there is still opportunity for it here. I am suggesting meat and three veg. I think we will look back and see this as an historical quirk, an anomaly in history, to be eating as much meat as we do.” 

Mr Wong predicts insects will become a key source of protein in future diets. With similar qualities to meat, they are efficient to produce, already widely eaten in the Asian world, and already form the basis of some protein powders, which are becoming an increasingly popular food supplement. 

“Frankly I don’t think we’ll have a choice about eating insects in the future, but if you don’t want to eat seaweed or crickets, it will always be a nutritional, sustainable source for animal feed,” he pointed out.

As well as producing protein with less impact on the environment, the same must be done for plant-based products, he said. Unusual places such as rooftops or disused tube tunnels offer huge potential for producing food efficiently and with low impact on the environment. Valuable crops also grow in inhospitable environments, for example seaweed is very nutritious, “and the sea bed is one place man can definitely improve biodiversity, as the deep ocean floor a desert,” added Mr Wong. Other plants that grow in marginal environments include rocket, a common weed, which sells for “too much” in Italian restaurants, Japanese knotweed, another weed and close relative of rhubarb and very popular in the East, and the increasingly popular quinoa, of which there is just one grower in the UK. 

Agrobiodiversity has reduced by 75% in the last 100 years, and out of 50,000 edible plants on the planet, only about 100 are eaten, so Mr Wong highlighted the potential not only to make more of what already grows, but what can be grown to satisfy the needs of a rapidly increasing population and its changing demands.

Watch James Wong's presentation here