Here, he planted native food species among native plants to create what he calls an “edible forest”. The result is a lush, biodiversity-rich environment where there was once barren land. He now hopes to cultivate the largest edible forest on the planet.
CNN spoke to Pacheco about his love of plants and the close connections between food, culture and climate.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
CNN: Your approach to cooking is very much about sustainability. You call it “regenerative gastronomy” – what does this mean to you?
Rodrigo Pacheco: Regenerative gastronomy is a type of gastronomy that aims to transform – to reconnect landscapes and people. It is about knowing the cycle of life, of the planet, of the plant.
Climate change is here, and it’s a gastronomy way of trying to contain climate change. Gastronomy plays a big role in the good health of ecosystems.
CNN: What is an edible forest and how are they essential to your work?
Rodrigo Pacheco: All the elements that work in a normal forest, we try to reproduce them in an edible forest. They are native species – we do not create artificial ecosystems. We just collect all the edible species and put them together in one place.
When we got here it was a totally flat and empty ecosystem and … nine years later it has become a forest. We mainly cultivate species native to Ecuador, such as purple potato, corn, cocoa, papaya, peppers, pineapple, avocado, peppers, pumpkin.
We are trying here to do our best with what we have. We are using the land wisely, adapting to what is already there, but making sure that we leave the place much better than what we have found.
CNN: Why is it important to build on indigenous practices to improve the sustainability of food production and what can we learn from ancestral food traditions?
Rodrigo Pacheco: I learned in the Amazon that they used papaya straw. The papaya branch is totally empty inside so they use a huge straw to drink the shisha [a fermented yuca drink].
When I heard that, we transformed our restaurant bar with these straws and we have served over 40,000 of these straws over the past nine years, where we have banned plastic straws altogether – so much of that inspiration comes from them.
Using agriculture to replace the plastic items used in the hospitality industry, I think it’s amazing. And we learn that from these ancestral cultures.
CNN: What are the critical issues facing agriculture today?
Rodrigo Pacheco: If we all close our eyes and take an x-ray of our refrigerators, no matter where you are in the world, we will find the same products. There are 1,000 types of edible plants in the world and we use 20. So we have to rethink this model, we have to rethink and change our habits, and try to discover all these beautiful plants that have a lot to say.
My mission as FAO’s special goodwill ambassador comes from years of working, of being here, of being in touch with nature.
I followed the cycle of life, of plants, of being passionate about research, and also about the next step – cooking. Cooking is a continuation of agriculture, and agriculture is a bridge to connect humans and nature.
CNN: Is it possible to make food production work for the planet rather than against it?
Rodrigo Pacheco: I am really hopeful because I see how resilient nature can be.
We have to think of trees and plants as the highest technology. They are working for us to create a better environment, a richer environment for food. Plants are therefore our allies.
The more plants there are, the more climate resistant we are, the more resources we have, the more carbon we sequester, the more food we can get. Plants are therefore definitely a solution for humans.