Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets

October 9, 2012

Biodiversity can help ensure the sustainability of the planet’s food supplies in the presence of a growing population.

Biodiversity can help ensure the sustainability of the planet’s food supplies in the presence of a growing population.

Ten years ago, your average shopper had never heard of an “ancient grain,” but today, quinoa, amaranth, and the like populate not only natural food shelves but mass-market shelves as well.

Why is this good? Well, for one, consumers can spice up everyday meals and they can rediscover ingredients that may have been consumed once long ago but have since fallen by the wayside in favor of mainstream (yawn!) varieties.

Alternative food sources like ancient grains offer a bigger benefit, though: biodiversity. Biodiversity means diversifying food sources used in the human diet. Biodiversity can help ensure the sustainability of the planet’s food supplies in the presence of a growing population and is the premise of a new book, Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and Bioversity International, an agricultural biodiversity research group.

The book’s main message is alarming, to say the least. “Regardless of the many successes of agriculture in the last three decades, it is clear that food systems, and diets, are not sustainable,” writes coeditor Barbara Burlingame, principal officer of FAO’s nutrition and consumer protection division.

First off, from a logistics and production standpoint, food sourcing for modern diets in general is not sustainable, relying on high fossil fuel use, chemicals, and long-distance transport, writes Denis Lairon, president, Federation of European Nutrition Societies.

Also unsustainable? Our health, if we keep eating the way we do. As more developing countries trend toward Western-style eating habits, diets have become deficient in micronutrients and rich in unhealthy amounts of fat and sugar, Lairon adds.

Moving to a Western-style diet has other consequences, too-namely, causing communities to eschew their own local food sources, such as native and traditional plants, in favor of foreign species more in line with Western menus.

Besides the impracticality and earth-unfriendliness of ignoring the resources right outside the front door, think also of the nutritional opportunities lost in not eating locally and seasonally. As Lairon points out, sourcing foods locally enables harvesting during a crop’s peak maturity, which optimizes flavor, taste, and, importantly, nutritional profile.

As a result of ignoring local varieties, however, Western diets have grown increasingly monotonous, to the point that we now rely on just a few staple sources, despite thousands of other food sources on the planet. Rice, wheat, maize, and potatoes, for instance, comprise 50% of global agriculture. It’s the same with livestock, which mainly tout the “big five”: cattle, sheep, chicken, goats, and pigs.

Changchui He, FAO’s deputy director general, calls our diets “oversimplified.” He also says that this “reliance on a limited number of energy-rich foods” coincides with increased rates of obesity and chronic disease. Part of this may be because, as Nutritional Outlook’s Robby Gardner points out in this issue’s protein story, each food source-take different plant proteins, for instance-offers unique health benefits. But limiting ourselves to just a few unhealthy sources means we may never reap the rewards other alternatives offer.

And, finally, where biodiversity makes use of already existing food sources on the planet that might otherwise be ignored and wasted, oversimplification and lack of diversity by contrast has serious, lasting implications for our planet.

For instance, focusing on developing non-local breeds often comes “at the expense of local genetic resources….For example, in Thailand, with the import of foreign breeds of livestock, indigenous breeds such as the Khaolamppon cow, the Rad pig, the Hinan pig, and the Nakornpratom duck are disappearing…,” write Kathryn Campbell, Kieran Noonan-Mooney, and Kalemani Jo Mulongoy, secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. “The decline in species populations…[has] led to an overall significant decline in the genetic diversity of life on earth.”  

That’s a big sacrifice to make just to eat a Big Mac.

Relying so heavily on a select number of food sources is also dangerous from a food security standpoint. What happens when one of our prime crops is endangered, or when prices climb dramatically on a primary food source?

As such, Emile Frison, director general of Bioversity International, urges the world to “move beyond the major staples and to look at the many hundreds and thousands of neglected and underutilized plant and animal species that mean the difference between an unsustainable and sustainable diet.”

So that ancient grain? It’s not the past; it’s the future.