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Chefs lead virtual dialogue on biodiversity & food with Future Food Institute

For Food Forever Champion and Chef Erik Oberholtzer, using more diverse ingredients in dishes is all about “unlocking the mysteries and magic of our food systems.” We couldn’t agree more.

This was his central message to students in the Food & Climate Shapers Digital Boot Camp, hosted by the Future Food Institute, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the Crop Trust last week. Designed to empower future food and climate leaders through digital masterclasses and thought-provoking conversations, the Boot Camp brought together participants from Brazil to Costa Rica to Finland to discuss the healing power of food.

Chef Oberholtzer led one of two inspirational sessions on the critical role of agrobiodiversity for food systems and culinary sustainability. Chef Conor Spacey of FoodSpace Ireland and the Chefs’ Manifesto led the other on cooking with nutritious, sustainable and diverse ingredients.

As we begin to meal plan for the weekend, we’re taking a look back on what we learned at the Digital Boot Camp.

Celebrating Diversity – Locally & Globally 

Showing off a colorful cutting board of fresh ingredients for a delicious stir fry, Chef Spacey told participants of the Future Food Digital Boot Camp what biodiversity means to him.

“For me,” said the Culinary Director of FoodSpace Ireland, “biodiversity is all about the variety of life here on the planet. When we look at food systems, we can celebrate biodiversity locally, but it’s also about global foods.”

The ingredients Chef Spacey brought to the boot camp embodied both local and global food systems. From his kitchen in native Ireland, he introduced ingredients like curly kale, barley and two varieties of seaweed. Barley, a tough cereal crop, is not common in Ireland. It can be found growing in a number of environments where other grains can’t grow – from arctic latitudes and alpine altitudes to saline desert oases, but it took Chef Conor up to 6 months to source barley on the island for use in his restaurants.

Seaweed, however, is prevalent in Ireland where over 20 varieties are grown on the Irish coast. Conor shared that he enjoys using local seaweed in his dishes because it’s highly nutritious, very sustainable and brings in a delicious, salty “umami” flavor.

“[Each ingredient] is part of a more diverse diet and more diverse planet,” Chef Spacey said.

Students cooked alongside him, discussing the ingredients they sourced themselves, which reflected the geographical diversity of the digital classroom. While some students were able to find locally grown varieties of barley, others substituted with different varieties of grain such as rice or lentils. For Chef Spacey, this paid tribute to the global nature of our food systems and reinforced the importance of accessing and using crops that can be sourced sustainably.

“The planet is our larder,” Chef Conor said. “We have such great varieties of foods available to us, we just need to use more of them. There are over 30,000 edible species but we only eat a few. This biodiversity is essential for our survival and the survival of the planet.”

The Power of Food for Positive Change

Chef Erik Oberholtzer is a believer in the power of food for positive change. As a Food Forever champion, he’s used to advocating for more diversity in the global food system. For him, more diversity doesn’t just mean a healthier planet or diet, it also means more fun.

“How can we take common ingredients that we all know and have access to and reintroduce them in a way that we discover the magic and the variety within a single group?” Chef Erik asked.

For the evening session of the Digital Boot Camp, the answer to his own question was an enticing Huitlacoche quesadilla with organic maize and a sunflower petal salad.

As one of the most industrialized ingredients in the world, maize is by no means a forgotten or underutilized ingredient. In fact, it’s one of four crops that account for over 60% of global caloric intake, alongside rice, wheat and potatoes. However, without the astonishing diversity which underpins maize and each staple crop, these calories are vulnerable to climate change, pests, diseases and more – which are currently challenging our agricultural systems.  All the more reason, then, to highlight diverse varieties of maize and encourage its sustainable cultivation and use.

Maize was the star in Chef Oberholtzer’s quesadilla but to accompany it he used cheese originating in the Mexican province of Oaxaca, paying homage to one of the world’s greatest agrobiodiversity hotspots. The quesadillas were further garnished with in-season sunflower petals and Huitlacoche, a unique, delicious fungus known as the “Mexican truffle.”

For Chef Oberholtzer, change might just start with a quesadilla. The global food system needs to be more sustainable in order to feed a growing population in a changing climate he urged. Sustainability often starts with the choices we make and for many of us those choices can begin with what we cook at home.

Wherever we may be in the world, for Chef Oberholtzer, “the one universal language is deliciousness.”

Chefs like Conor Spacey and Erik Oberholtzer are uniquely positioned to drive change for the benefit of the food system and eaters all over the world. With each dialogue on the critical importance of agrobiodiversity to the global food system, the future gets a little more secure and even a little tastier.

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