Earth First

Could A Chef-Science Alliance Put the Value Back in Biodiversity?

As global biodiversity dwindles, an unconventional alliance is blossoming. Here’s how a partnership between the culinary world and scientific community is setting a new course for gastronomy and conservation science.

Biodiversity, understood as the vast tapestry of life on Earth, from microorganisms to megafauna, is facing unprecedented threats. Central to these threats are food systems and our agricultural practices.1,6 

Decades of increased global demand for our food systems to provide consistent, year-round food supply has triggered a reduction in genetic diversity, favouring monoculture plantations of crops like wheat, rice, corn, and soy.2 This simplification of agricultural ecosystems has drastically reduced habitat complexity and many essential services such as soil fertility, pollination, and water purification.3, 16 Moreover, it increases vulnerability to pests, diseases, and climatic shifts, leading to a reliance on chemical pesticides and herbicides, further harming the environments we rely on to feed our world.4, 5

Recognising these issues, recent efforts have turned towards conservation, to mitigate these impacts and protect the fragile and yet critical ecosystems our subsistence depends on. 

The conservation paradigm

Traditional conservation methods often perceive humans and nature as separate entities, failing to recognise the ways in which we interact. Historically, this led us to establish isolated reserves, or pockets of protected natural areas where we hope to allow natural systems a break from human interaction. But while these reserves aim to protect, research indicates that a separation-based conservation approach does not always function the way we would hope.7, 8

In response, recent efforts have aimed to foster a more integrated approach to conservation. Incorporating the 'conservation-through-use' approach, legislative initiatives like the European Parliament's Nature Restoration Law, aiming to actively restore 20% of Europe's degraded ecosystems by 2030, shift us towards a model where conservation areas are integrated into a larger ecological mosaic, blending human activity with nature.18 This approach not only protects, but also enhances biodiversity by actively integrating it into our daily lives. And considering that 38% of Earth's land area is now dedicated solely to agriculture, the need to rethink our interaction with the land and ecosystems is stronger than ever.9 

Chef-scientist collaborations are gaining momentum

Today, chefs are perfectly placed to help integrate conservation into our everyday lives - even for those living far from agricultural areas. When diverse and underutilised ingredients are on the menu, we inevitably assign them with value. By valuing and using biodiversity, we create economic incentives to maintain and restore natural habitats rather than degrading them.10

In this context, gastronomy and the culinary world could be a pivotal force. 

A recent rise in food-focused media has shone a spotlight on the growing prominence of chefs as not only food suppliers, but as important public figures capable of driving food movements. Now uniquely positioned to shape dining trends and consumer habits, chefs and restaurants hold the potential to promote biodiversity through their culinary choice to incorporate neglected and underutilised species into their menus.11

Showcasing these underutilised products, chefs can create demand for new ingredients, elevate public awareness, and inspire scientific innovation for more sustainable market options. And from Colombia to the streets of London, these pioneers of culinary conservation have yielded some impressive outcomes in recent years.

The Guaimaro Nut and Celele Restaurant, Colombia

The Guaimaro (Brosimum alicastrum) - one of the tallest tree species of Colombia’s tropical dry forest - holds an important place in the ecological and cultural fabric of its native habitats. Historically, its nut has been a vital and versatile food source for indigenous communities like the Yukpa people.12

Serving as an indicator species, acting as a barometer for the health of its environment, the Guaimaro tree’s survival depends on a delicate balance of ecological players. Its abundance signals a balanced environment, while its decline indicates ecological stress. It is also considered a keystone species, meaning that, unlike other species, its impact on the ecosystem is disproportionately large compared to its abundance. By stabilising and enhancing the soil with its extensive root system, and supporting a variety of wildlife by providing essential food resources, its presence and health help maintain the overall structure and environmental balance of its habitat.13

Today, the ecological balance Guimaro depends on for its survival is under threat. The expansion of international trade markets and the homogenisation of diets have led to a loss of traditional knowledge and a decline in the use of native species in Colombia.

In response to these challenges, scientists from the Humboldt institute and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as part of the “Useful Plants and Fungi of Colombia Project” started a collaboration with several restaurants nationwide, to revive and promote the Guaimaro nut through culinary appreciation. One of these is Celele, in Cartagena, owned by Chef Jaime Rodriguez, whose menu features innovative dishes made with Guaimaro flour, including a signature dessert.

Left: Jaime Rodriguez and Sebastian Pinzon, owners of the restaurant Celele, in Cartagena Colombia. Right: Flour made from the seeds of the Guaimaro tree.

The project has led to the establishment of a local processing facility that supports sustainable harvesting and trade of Guaimaro nuts. This facility not only allows the community to retain a greater share of economic benefits from their natural resources, but also plays a key role in capacity building. By involving local residents in the management and operations, the facility enhances their skills and knowledge in sustainable practices, ensuring that the harvesting processes contribute positively to the local ecosystem.

This model promotes a virtuous cycle where economic benefits derived from the forest are directly linked to its health and sustainability. As the community recognises the economic advantages of maintaining a robust ecosystem, they are more likely to engage in and advocate for conservation practices.

Andean Mauka and Central Restaurant in Lima, Peru

Mauka (Mirabilis expansa) is a traditionally cultivated Andean root, deeply entrenched in both the high-altitude soils of the Andes and the culture of its local communities. Traditionally, Mauka has been a vital part of local diets with the root being processed through a method known as asolear (to sun), where it is left out in the sun for several days to reduce its natural oxalate content and enhance its sweetness.14

The culinary applications of Mauka are diverse, from simple boiled roots to substitute bread or potatoes, to more complex dishes like picante de cuy (spicy guinea pig stew), where it is used as a hearty accompaniment. Innovative uses also include its incorporation into mazamorra, a traditional dessert.14

Pia Leòn and Virgilio Martínez, the celebrated chefs behind Lima's Central Restaurant, have been instrumental in reviving interest in Mauka through innovative culinary practices. Their approach integrates a deep respect for native ingredients with a contemporary culinary creativity, bringing forgotten flavours back to the table while drawing attention to their ecological significance. The chefs created a series of quick dishes showcasing Mauka's versatility, including thin Mauka crisps layered with fresh Andean cheese and herbs, Mauka in a hot ceviche-style broth, and fried Mauka with avocado puree and borage flowers.

Right: Pia Leòn and Virgilio Martínez, chefs at Lima's Central Restaurant, Peru. Right: León's dish of Peruvian tubers. Photos via Central and 50 Best. 

But this practice goes well beyond colourful dishes. Facilitated by the efforts of conservationists like Gendall and colleagues, the collaboration between Central and local farmers seeks to boost cultivation of Mauka, highlighting its gastronomic and environmental value while ensuring economic benefits for farmers.14 The move to cultivate Mauka also offers the local farmers an opportunity to build agricultural resilience and buffer themselves against the impacts of a climate instability. Neglected and underutilised crops often possess greater resilience to local environmental challenges such as pests, diseases, and climate variability, reducing the need for chemical inputs and promoting a healthier ecosystem. 

Integral to these efforts is Mater Iniciativa, an interdisciplinary research organisation founded by Pia Leòn and Virgilio Martínez, and Malena Martinez, dedicated to bridging the gap between indigenous knowledge and contemporary culinary innovation. Through field research, and collaboration with local communities and ecologists, the organisation uncovers and documents the wealth of Peru’s native ingredients, contributing to broader conversations about food security, sustainability, and the preservation of cultural heritage.

Douglass McMaster from Silo (London)

Douglass McMaster, head chef at Silo in London, has spent the last few years incorporating responsibly sourced invasive species into the menu. Through Silo’s supper clubs, McMaster has managed to not only foster meaningful dialogues about environmental issues, but directly contribute to conservation efforts aiming to control invasive species populations that could threaten local ecosystems. His journey into less conventional ingredients has also highlighted just how undervalued and entirely usable these ingredients really are.

"Japanese knotweed, for example, is almost identical in flavour to rhubarb," McMaster explains. "Organic Japanese knotweed could be chopped up and stewed like you would rhubarb, and you'd have a delicious compote. Squirrel, on the other hand, has a delicious gamey flavour and texture, and it's far more sustainable than any meat you might get from the supermarkets. We've made both squirrel kofte and squirrel dumplings for our dinners, and we now have it on the menu whenever we can get hold of the meat." Native to North America, grey squirrels are an invasive species in much of England and Wales and have driven the local extinction of the native red squirrel16

Left: Douglass McMaster, chef at London's Silo. Right: Japanese knotweed prepared at the restaurant. Photos via Douglass McMaster and Silo. 

Admittedly though, for McMaster, sourcing these ingredients in the right way can be challenging. "Take Himalayan balsam, for instance - it's highly invasive. In the late summer months when the pods start to grow, we encourage people to stay well away to avoid disturbing the pods and spreading invasive seeds further.” In order to source it responsibly, McMaster’s team will only harvest it with an expert in the off-season, and preserve the edible flowers for future use. 

"I'm not encouraging people to go out and source invasives themselves unless they’re experienced foragers," McMaster clarifies. "The idea isn’t to popularise these species to the point where there's so much demand that they become even more invasive. We’re just hoping to restore some balance within the ecosystem.” And while he ‘isn’t holding his breath’ to see these ingredients in supermarkets anytime soon, Silo’s inclusion of invasives on the menu continues to raise awareness and reshape the narrative around the role of food in conservation.

The challenges of culinary conservation

While the integration of culinary practices into conservation efforts offers innovative pathways for environmental stewardship, it also presents a set of complex challenges. 

1. Sustainability and ethical sourcing

As chefs begin to explore underutilised or invasive species, there are real risks of over-popularising new ingredients. The well-intentioned promotion of underutilised species can lead to overharvesting and commodification, potentially threatening the very biodiversity conservationists seek to protect. For example, the rapid increase in global demand for quinoa after becoming popular has impacted the economies and agricultural practices of Andean communities, illustrating how culinary trends can influence local markets and food security.15

2. Challenges with scaling

Scaling local conservation successes to a global level presents another formidable challenge. While chef-scientist collaborations can yield significant local impacts, expanding these to a broader scale involves complex logistics, increased financial support, and robust policy frameworks. The effectiveness of local projects does not always translate into global solutions due to varied environmental, cultural, and economic contexts.

3. Economic disparities

While high-end chefs and restaurants pioneering conservation-through-cuisine initiatives can contribute to sustainability efforts, the exclusivity of fine dining can limit the broader societal impact, confining the immediate benefits of these initiatives to a smaller, more affluent demographic.

However, there is potential for a ripple effect. As these specialty dishes gain popularity and media attention, the presence of these ingredients in more mainstream markets may increase, encouraging larger scale production and, over time, leading to economies of scale. 

On one hand, these developments might lower the costs and broaden the accessibility of these sustainable ingredients. But this transition will also require careful management as markets expand, and control over ethical sourcing or the sustainability of cultivation processes becomes increasingly difficult. Inevitably, much like successful biodiversity conservation, the solution will likely lie in finding that all important balance.

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