How ancient cesspits could shape future diets

Tackling the climate and health crises with diet sounds fanciful, but lessons from the past are valuable because they can open our collective minds to what could be achieved.

Enjoying better health while helping to tackle the climate crisis sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Yet tweaking our diet could help with both. 

The findings of the EAT Lancet Commission generated debate with their prescription for human and planetary health. Compared with current NHS Eatwell guidelines, they involve consuming increased proportions of plant foods, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. Would this make us more reliant on food imports, or could UK-grown foods satisfy our needs for nutrients and variety?

I asked John Giorgi, an archeobotanist, what UK residents might have eaten in times when people were more reliant on what could be grown locally. Through analyses of English refuse and cesspits we know that fruit, vegetables, pulses, and whole grains (generally eaten as bread, cakes or porridge) formed a large part of the peasant diet, supplemented with meat, and in coastal regions, fish and seafood. 

Nuts were especially valued. Leafy vegetables generally preserve less well in the archaeological record but were important. John detailed a tempting-sounding array of herbs, stone fruits, apples, pears, soft fruits and wild edibles as part of this historic diet. So far, so good. More variety than I imagined, and by the end of our call, I was feeling hungry!  

Some food producers are using this knowledge of the past to identify forgotten foods and techniques that might suit the changing UK climate and help increase the variety of nutritious alternatives. 

Grains
Grains from the past could help produce climate resilient crops for the future. 

Ancient grains found in Iron Age settlements, such as spelt and emmer wheat, are again being grown and made into flour, bread, and now pasta and crackers. The keeping qualities of these grains (and of nuts) were prized in an era when reducing spoilage and food waste took priority over ease of processing. With food waste being an important driver of carbon emissions, perhaps these trade-offs could be re-examined?

In medieval England, grains were grown as mixtures or ‘populations’, to reduce the risk of crop failure, an old technique with renewed potential in a changing climate. This potential is being explored using ‘population’ wheat grown and milled in Devon at Dartington Mill. 

Others are using mixed planting techniques for non-grain-based food production. Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust draws on natural ecosystems for his inspiration. Forest gardens, containing a mixture of trees, shrubs and perennial plants, are designed for improved resilience against climate change, as well as producing a useful array of edibles, some uncommon on UK plates. 

Tackling the climate and health crises with diet sounds fanciful, but lessons from the past are valuable because they can open our collective minds to what could be achieved, and may even represent a step in the transition to a more climate-friendly future. 

This column was initially published in issue 6 of Wicked Leeks magazine. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu by clicking here

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