Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

Mainstreaming biodiversity for nutrition in Brazil

06 Dec 2016

Daniela Moura de Oliveira Beltrame, National Project Coordinator, Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition, explains why Brazil is putting diverse native species at the centre of policies for sustainable development. This blog is part of a special series for CBD COP13 that is highlighting why mainstreaming agricultural and tree biodiversity in sustainable food and production systems is critical to achieve the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity.  

Q: What challenges is Brazil facing in terms of nutrition?

A: Brazil is facing the triple burden of malnutrition, which means on the one hand we have an increasing rate of obese and overweight people, yet on the other, we have parts of the population which receive a deficiency of calories. We are also seeing widespread micronutrient deficiencies – when people do not receive the essential vitamins and minerals they need for healthy development. For example, around one fourth of women of reproductive age have anaemia. You also need to consider that these forms of malnutrition can happen within the same community, the same family, or even the same person – someone who is undernourished in early childhood can be overweight in later life.   

Q: What is driving this nutrition crisis?

A: We have seen a shift in diets. Diets used to contain a diverse mix of fresh vegetables, fruits, meat and milk. Now, like in many countries around the world, we are seeing more simplified diets and a higher consumption of products high in fat and carbohydrates. Around 70% of the food we consume in Brazil is produced by smallholders while the larger farms usually produce commodity crops for export, such as sugarcane and soybean. We have recognized that there is plenty of potential to use more diversified foods for improved nutrition, if we take advantage of rich diversity of locally adapted species and varieties in our food production systems.

Q: How did you get involved in the 'Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition (B4FN)' initiative?

A: I was completing my PhD in food science, and my former supervisor was the then national coordinator of the 'Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition (B4FN)' initiative. I started by assisting her with the coordination and implementation of activities, until eventually taking over as national coordinator. 

Through my studies I had already become aware of the potential of native species to contribute to nutrition and health, as I had studied some wild species – species that grow spontaneously in cropping systems that once had been used as food, but today are often discarded – for example, some non-conventional vegetables and medicinal teas. When I started to work for B4FN, I was amazed by the project and the number of nutritious species that have been forgotten or neglected. The idea to promote their use makes so much sense.

Daniela Moura de Oliveira Beltrame, National Project Coordinator, Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition

Q: How is Brazil making people value these foods again?

A: In order to raise awareness about these foods and their potential, it is essential to increase the scientific knowledge base about nutritional content, implementing supportive policies that promote biodiversity for nutrition, and through awareness campaigns.

For example, we have partnerships with universities in the five regions of Brazil, who are working to analyze the nutritional content of 70 native species prioritized through the initiative and develop culinary recipes with them. The 70 species came from a Ministry of the Environment initiative which was already ongoing called ‘Plants for the Future’. The work is being done with a large group of experts including botanists, agronomists, and those working in the field with local knowledge not only about local species, but also which ones are being used most and for what reason.

Q:  What kind of policies are you putting in place to promote biodiverse foods in diets and markets?

A: We have two big procurement programmes delivered through our partners, the School Feeding Programme and the Food Acquisition Programme. Both have a direct link to family farmers to promote the cultivation and use of the regional foods. In the School Feeding Programme, schools can buy directly from the farmers in the region.

The government also buys organic and agroecological food from family farmers on a register at a premium price. This food is donated to people in a situation of food insecurity, or stockpiled for future use. More recently, another modality was created allowing other institutions such as hospitals and prisons to purchase foods from farmers on the registry as well. Trough B4FN, an ordinance with an official list of underutilized edible species from Brazilian biodiversity was launched in 2016 to guide these food procurement programs and other public policies, and ultimately increase their utilization.  

Q: The Initiative has been ongoing for four years. What changes have you seen?

A: We work with partners at the federal level and have seen many changes in behaviour over this time. We are establishing strategic partnerships with different ministries and different initiatives, to include biodiversity in policies and raise awareness of its importance for nutrition. We used to see that while biodiversity was considered in food and nutrition security policies, it was from a conservation point of view. Now we can see in many publications and materials arising from the partner ministries that they are promoting the use of diverse non-conventional native species.

Q: Why is Brazil so keen to mainstream biodiversity for development goals?

A: We are very proud of our ecosystems and when you mention to policymakers, researchers and people in general that we have all these underutilized foods that can become additional sources of income, promote both food and income security to small communities and family farmers and farmers in general, and at the same time contribute to conserve and promote our biodiversity, they are usually very keen to embrace and work with the B4FN project.

Q: What is your favourite food that you have rediscovered through B4FN?

A: My family live just outside a small city in the Amazonian region and on their property, where you can find many varieties of mangoes (which is not a native species), we also have many of these foods that we have been researching in the project. Now when I go home I walk around and try to identify them.

When I was young, I remember that we had some palm trees (Buriti – scientific name Mauritia flexuosa) which I now know bears fruits that are really rich in carotenoids. When I was a child, we never ate it. Never. We just saw it laying on the ground and did not take advantage of it. Now when I come home, I try to identify these neglected species and show my mother how they can be consumed, based also on recipes developed by the partner universities. I say “Mum, you can do this, and this, or this, with them.” And they are starting to use them and have developed a tree nursery with native species. So this is a very real example – we use things that came from abroad but do not value what comes from our home or even not know that we can use it.

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The GEF 'Mainstreaming biodiversity for nutrition and health' initiative is led by Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey and coordinated by Bioversity International, with implementation support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and additional support from the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.

This blog is part of a series that Bioversity International is rolling out around COP13 - Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Well-Being. The blogs explain why mainstreaming agricultural and tree biodiversity is critical in sustainable food and production systems if we are to achieve the Convention on Biological Diversity's Strategic Action Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 that "By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and widely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people".

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Photo 1: School Feeding and Procurement Programme in Brazil. Credit: Daniela Moura de Oliveira Beltrame; Photo 2: Daniela Moura de Oliveira Beltrame, National Project Coordinator, Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition

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