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An Expert Insight into Kew Gardens
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An Expert Insight into Kew Gardens

The Chefs’ Manifesto travelling caravan came back around to OmVed earlier in the summer for the Global Gathering 2019. With over 150 chefs in attendance across four days, it was set to be another
insightful and inspiring Chefs Manifesto outing.

The opening day took us on a tour of the world’s most biodiverse postcode – Kew Gardens. Home to 30,000 species of living plants and approximately 7.5 million specimens in the herbarium, the numbers speak for themselves. This is the place to talk biodiversity, climate resilience and a number of other themes central to the Chefs Manifesto.
Contrary to horticultural expectations, the staff of Kew is predominately scientists, as explained by Professor Monique Simmonds in her opening address. Luckily for us, our tour guides for the day were to be those very scientists; soil experts, bee specialists, researchers, coffee growers and head gardeners; those most equipped to share knowledge with the chefs.

Our first port of call was the coffee table. Head of Coffee Research, Dr Aaron Davis, outlined Kew’s five-year study on coffee production in Ethiopia – the cultural and biological home of coffee. While the threats of climate change are obvious, the opportunities to build a climate-resilient coffee economy do exist. Ethical roasters, such as Union Coffee, have been working towards just that, their initiatives not only supporting an average increase of 30% to farmer's salaries, but giving communities a renewed sense of pride in wild coffee forests. And unlike the volatility of commodity coffee, their speciality coffee offers a flavour that holds it price.

Next, we were welcomed by Kew’s Economic Botanists. Their biocultural collection includes traditional food crops, cooking innovations and solutions for food security. The power of this collection is broad and far-reaching, with rare and near-extinct varieties offering solutions for increased biodiversity, expanding nutrient profiles of national diets, and providing livelihoods for those best-equipped to work in harmony with the environment; all strong links to the SDG’s. With thousands ofspecimens in the collection, the team explained how the value of their open online database in expanding public access to this knowledge.

Over the last half a century the mainstream offering of edible plants has been dramatically reduced to a very limited selection of staples. Many of the edible plants available today have lost their critical components such as the ability to deal with drought or floods, attributes bred out in favour of size and flavour. In response to this information, a pertinent question arose, ‘how can food producers capture those important factors, whilst maintaining a living?’

Over at Kew’s kitchen garden, the dedicated team looking at exactly this were on hand to offer a possible solution – breeding plants to survive without human intervention such as fertilisers or pesticides. The evolution garden, part of the kitchen garden, is a living timeline of plant evolution, tracking a multitude of fruit and veg varieties through the centuries. Replicating what happens in the forest, the garden operates a no-dig policy, allowing the soil structure to remain intact and the bugs and worms to thrive.

The reintroduction of heritage varieties and experimentation with varying climatic conditions is central to the work of the kitchen garden department. Through alternative root crops capable of surviving hot, wet summers, and wild relatives of the potato to remedy issues likes blight, this research has the
potential to impact our whole food system in the future.

And, of course, where would we be without the pollinators? Pollinators under threat as a consequence of environmental factors, poor nutrition, pesticides and diseases. Behind Kew’s critical work to understand, and ultimately conserve, pollinators are a dedicated team. Of the 20,000 bee species found worldwide, 275 live in the UK; 107 of these in the ground of Kew. Most are solitary bees, and many are monolectic; collecting pollen from just one plant species. We sampled various honeys and gained a unique insight into how bees forage and return to food sources. Bees that feed on coffee are more likely to return to that plant due to their caffeine-induced super memory. The chemicals found in heather are particularly good at killing parasites found on bumblebees – a beautiful example of the harmonious interdependence of the natural world. This work emphasised the work required to ensure we can provide and protect the right plant species for pollinators to thrive; solutions like planting medicinal plants and maintaining the nutritional quality of flora.

The morning at Kew Gardens offered not only inspiration and collaborative thinking on our work at OmVed Gardens, but the deeply reassuring knowledge that this leading light was working continuously and collaboratively to support climate resilience in edible plants, with biodiversity at the core.

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