Here’s how microgreens could help fight global malnutrition

  • Microgreens can help to provide global nutrition security, according to a study.
  • The tiny plants have gained popularity among consumers for their nutritional profile and high content of antioxidant compounds.
  • Consumers could produce microgreens at home using simple tools available in a kitchen.
  • The current COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerability of our food systems, and the need to address nutrition security.

Microgreens started decades ago as fashionable, high-value gourmet greens, but a new study suggests they have the potential to help provide global nutrition security.

The tiny plants have gained popularity among consumers for their nutritional profile and high content of antioxidant compounds.

As part of a project titled, “Food Resilience in the Face of Catastrophic Global Events,” researchers have found that these vegetables can be grown in a variety of soilless production systems in small spaces indoors, with or without artificial lighting. The findings are especially relevant amid a pandemic that has disrupted food supply chains.

With microgreens, people can produce fresh and nutritious vegetables even in areas that are considered food deserts, says team leader Francesco Di Gioia, assistant professor of vegetable crop science in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State.

an infographic explaining the nutritional benefits of microgreens

Microgreens are highly nutritious.

Image: Fix

“The current COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerability of our food system and the need to address malnutrition issues and nutrition-security inequality, which could be exacerbated by potential future emergencies or catastrophes,” he says. “Nutrient-dense microgreens have great potential as an efficient food-resilience resource.”

Grow your own

Microgreens’ nutritional profile is associated with the rich variety of colors, shapes, textural properties, and flavors obtained from sprouting a multitude of edible vegetable species, including herbs, herbaceous crops, and wild edible species.

With a short growth cycle requiring only minimal inputs of fertilizer, microgreens have great potential to provide essential nutrients and antioxidants, Di Gioia notes.

Using simple agronomic techniques, it is possible to produce microvegetables that could address specific dietary needs or micronutrient deficiencies, as well as nutrition-security issues in emergency situations or in challenging environmental conditions.

Consumers could produce microgreens at home using simple tools available in a kitchen, Di Gioia points out. A grower also would need seeds, growing trays, and a growth medium—which could consist of a common peat or peat and perlite growth mix.

Microgreens in space

Given all the characteristics of microgreens, scientists at NASA and the European Space Agency also have proposed them as a source of fresh food and essential nutrients for astronauts engaged in long-term space missions. And because microgreens may be used as functional food to enhance nutrition security under current conditions and during future emergencies or catastrophes, Di Gioia suggests that microgreen production kits including seeds could be prepared and stored, then made available when needed.

“Under such circumstances, a variety of fresh and nutrient-rich microgreens could be grown providing a source of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants in a relatively short time,” he says. “Or alternatively, kits could be distributed to vulnerable segments of the population as a short-term nutrition-security resource.”

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

Di Gioia presented the research, which appears in Acta Horticulturae, virtually during the International Symposium on Soilless Culture and Hydroponics.

Additional researchers are from the University of Thessaly, Magnissia, Greece; Instituto Politécnico de Bragança, Centro de Investigaçã o de Montanha, Campus de Santa Apolónia, Bragança, Portugal; and the Horticultural Research Laboratory at the US Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service.

Open Philanthropy and the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supported the work.