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One thousand and ninety seven reasons to celebrate World Food Day

Local agrobiodiversity in Guatemala. Credit: Bioversity International/R. Robitaille
Diverse local food species, Guatemala. Credit: Bioversity International/R. Robitaille

In her World Food Day blog, Ann Tutwiler, Director General, Bioversity International draws attention to the thousands of overlooked food species that could be deployed as strategic assets to help fix the food system.

A recent study by Bioversity International and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) reviewed the levels of research, conservation status and documentation for 1097 cultivated vegetables. This review is to support the uptake of a broad range of crops as “strategic assets” to help reduce high malnutrition rates. The study found that 93% of the species studied are neglected in all these three areas (research, conservation and documentation), in particular those from Africa and the Asia-Pacific Region.

In a recent Financial Times op-ed, Dr. Rajiv Shah, President of the Rockefeller Foundation said, “Global food policies must encourage the production of a diverse range of foods naturally rich in the vitamins and minerals people need to be healthy.” This article followed another thought piece where Shah called for “a modern food revolution that feeds, nourishes and sustains us.” This vision for a sustainable food system is one that drives the innovative work here at Bioversity International, to show how agricultural biodiversity can both nourish people and sustain the planet.

Thousands of species of plants exist on farms, and in the wild, that we can use for food. Within these species are millions of varieties that can improve nutrition, and have a low environmental impact. However, researchers, food companies and consumers often neglect these crops, which receive little in the way of research and development investment.

Shah draws attention to efforts to address nutritional deficiencies by fortifying staple crops with vitamins, pointing out that while this approach has saved lives, it has distorted demand. “Subsidies for cereal crops are such that only 2% of US cropland is dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables,” he comments.

Nutrition guidelines recommend consumption of at least 400g of fruits and vegetables every day. If every person on the planet tried to consume their recommended daily amount, they would find the global supply of fruits and vegetables falls 22% short  – a shortfall that rises to 50% in some low-income countries.

Bioversity International is working with partners* in Guatemala, India and Mali to revitalize the use of diverse local fruit and vegetables. These countries typically include a rich diversity of nutritious species that are also well adapted to local conditions. Yet household assessments showed periods of seasonal food insecurity, poor diet diversity and low consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Researchers and community members worked together to map the available diverse fruit and vegetables species on the farm, in markets and in the wild, across the seasons, resulting in seasonal food calendars (see image on the left) that help them to see how they can fill nutrition gaps all year round.

But to focus on using food diversity only to improve nutrition is missing a trick. As Shah reminds us, the food we choose to produce and the methods we choose to produce it, affect not just human health but also the planet’s health. Food production is a major driver of climate change, land use changes, depletion of freshwater resources and more. It accounts for 70% of all freshwater use and is responsible for nearly 25% of global greenhouse emissions.

This week a study published in Nature is the first to quantify how food production and consumption affects the planetary boundaries – the safe operating space for humanity beyond which Earth’s vital systems could become unstable. The authors say that feeding 10 billion people by 2050 within planetary limits may be achievable but only if there is a global shift towards healthy and more plant-based diets, halving food loss and waste, and improving farming practices.  Bioversity International’s work around the world with partners shows that farming practices based on biodiversity ticks all these boxes.

Mainstreaming biodiversity into agricultural sectors can increase yields, and reduce waste and dependencies on external inputs. For example, many of the same traditional crops mentioned above need less water and grow in poor quality soils. Crop diversity can also reduce crop pest and disease outbreaks. Farmers in Uganda who grow varietal mixtures of bananas and of beans perceive a yield increase of up to 28%, boosting farmers' motivations to use agricultural biodiversity for more resilient production systems. Cropping systems with high agricultural biodiversity from crop rotations can also increase soil nitrogen by up to 58% compared with those with low agricultural biodiversity.

Dr. Rajiv Shah calls for investment in “a food system that produces foods naturally rich in the vitamins and minerals we need to be healthy” and to “shift the weight of funding towards a new generation of ‘staple foods’. On World Food Day 2018, I can think of thousands of reasons to agree with him.

Ann Tutwiler

 

*‘Linking agrobiodiversity value chains, climate adaptation and nutrition: Empowering the poor to manage risk' is supported by IFAD, the European Union, and is part of the CGIAR Research Programs on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health and is supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Donors.

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