FOOD SYSTEMS FEEDING HUMANS ON THIS PLANET ARE DIVERSE. The vast majority of food is produced through agriculture, that is the production of plants and animals in a human-managed environment. I will only talk about plant production, noting that agricultural crops are a major source of animal feed. I will not discuss wild species harvested from non-agricultural landscapes, although in some food systems these species play an important role in nutritional security and in satisfying personal or cultural needs.
Agricultural biodiversity is difficult to define rigorously. This concept is usually referred to in the negative, as in the concerns often expressed about “the loss of agricultural biodiversity” in modern farming systems.
I propose that agricultural biodiversity be understood as the diversity of species used in food systems. We can expand the scope of the definition of agricultural biodiversity to also cover the diversity of crop varieties (lines, landraces) used by food systems for each species. Stretching the definition further, we could include the diversity of farming practices under which each species is grown but I will not discuss that point.
Food systems should aim to deliver food security, that is, according to FAO “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”.
What do we (humans) want from our food systems? Most people would agree that food systems should provide:
Whether food systems (as opposed to regulations, tax incentives, welfare transfers, payments for environmental services, etc.) should also be tasked with sustaining the existence of rural communities and farmers as landscape managers is a matter of debate. Agricultural biodiversity is a key element of satisfying the 4 requirements listed above.
This diversity has to be explored at very diverse scales, recognising the difference between staple food (providing a large part of the energy requirements) and fruits and vegetables, where biodiversity can be much larger and provide good returns to farmers.
FAO’s Definition of Agrobiodiversity
Agrobiodiversity is the result of the interaction between the environment, genetic resources and management systems and practices used by culturally diverse peoples, and therefore land and water resources are used for production in different ways. Thus, agrobiodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are necessary for sustaining key functions of the agro-ecosystem, including its structure and processes for, and in support of, food production and food security.
At the planet scale, diversity of species grown is essential. Underutilised staple food (eg. tef, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, millets) need research so that their production can be profitable for farmers and for sustainable use of the land. Because of climate change and the need to reduce agriculture carbon footprint, productive use of land is paramount: we have to avoid at all costs further land clearing. For the next 4 decades, until global population stabilises (in around 2060), the growing demand for food has to be met by growing more food from the same area. This will require intensive, highly productive systems. Agricultural biodiversity can contribute to the intensification: growing more species, more crops per year, two species together (intercropping, mixed cropping), novel rotations, etc. Agricultural biodiversity can also assist in transitioning diets to more pulses (eg. bambara, cowpea, fonio, beans), fruits and nuts as a way to reduce meat consumption as advocated by the EAT-Lancet report.
At the regional scale, growing a diversity of species facilitates diverse supplies to the regional markets. However there are cases where specialised intensive production in one area with transport of the produce to other areas is more sustainable use of the land and the resources (eg. Carbon emitted per kg of produce).
At the farm scale: agro-ecological parameters (latitude, temperature, day length, water precipitation or irrigation availability, land topography and soil types, etc.) and socio-economic parameters (population density, landholding size, land tenure arrangements, access to farm input, credit and insurance, access to markets, etc.) determine for a large part which crops can be grown in a particular place at a particular time. Once these key parameters are accounted for, market demand and policies (eg. government procurement subsidies) will influence farmers’ individual decisions of what they grow and how.
At the end of the day, farmers will grow what consumers will buy, provided the food system enables them to pay themselves adequately by doing so. While return on investment is a major driver of large scale commercial farming, return on labour is a key concern for smallholder farmers in the developing world.
From a western consumer perspective, while there is a widespread belief that diversity of diets has decreased with modern agriculture, common sense and a regular visit to food markets and supermarkets in the western (rich) world show that consumers there have access to an increasing diversity of food. Just ask an 80-year old European consumer whether they had access to kiwifruit, bok choy, or quinoa in their childhood. Diets have changed with social and demographic changes and affluence, consumer preferences have changed and their demands have changed accordingly. Food systems have responded to these demands and would respond to changing demand in the future.
Two-thirds of crop production comes from just 9 species: sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava.
The remaining 6,000 cultivated plant species are in continuous decline. Some of the major causes of agricultural biodiversity loss can be traced in:
Multiple and closely interrelated are the causes behind the shrinking of diversity in food systems. They range from the intense standardization of planting material and agronomic practices, leading to widespread homogenization of biological processes and products, to the scarce R&D attention for addressing basic needs of underutilized crops, such as variety selection, agronomic improvement, upgrading of harvest and post harvest operations, or enhancement of value chains and markets. This diversity-poor approach has caused ultimately the marginalization of hundreds of nutritious and healthy crops, which could no longer compete with highly researched commodities in local, national and global food systems.
Consumers’ have also contributed to diversity reduction in food systems, by disliking traditional crops wrongly perceived as symbols of poverty and hardship, and focusing instead on a few popular, easy to cook staples. Decision makers have been giving little space to biodiversity in national agricultural development strategies and programs, focusing only on a few commodity crops, neglecting the numerous environmental and livelihood benefits associated with the deployment of crop diversity in food and production systems.
Almost one hundred years ago, the Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov identified 12 spots in the World where most of domesticated crops and their genetic diversity originated. He called those spots “Centres of Origin”.
Vavilov Centers are regions where a high diversity of crop wild relatives can be found and have been a basic knowledge for plant breeders to locate one crop’s historical roots and avoid genetic erosion.
Environment and Agrobiodiversity
In their about 300,000 years of evolution as a species, humans have spread across the globe, obtaining food from thousands of animal and vegetal species, building a rich and detailed knowledge of the food potential and uses of the surrounding biodiversity, and, after the Neolithic revolution, developing thousands of plant varieties and livestock breeds. This food diversity is the outcome of the co-evolving interactions between biological and cultural diversity in each place reached by humans in their expansion.
However, food production during the last century has been characterized by a progressive erosion of this diversity, under an economic framework that has pushed for large-scale and energy intensive production systems, and for standardization in food production and consumption. The spread of Western culture and its economic tentacles has replaced traditional livelihoods and ecologies, flattening food consumption toward processed and industrial foods based on monocultures of the fields and, in Vandana Shiva’s words, of the mind. Out of the estimated 7,000 plants that have been used for food, humans now rely on 20 species that provide 90% of the world’s food, with wheat, corn, and rice alone providing 50%. The erosion of species used is accompanied by an erosion of genetic diversity and the disappearance of breeds and varieties; about 20% of the 7600 livestock breeds are at risk of disappearing.
While instrumental to (rather than as mere consequence of) a quantity-driven economy and a dominant ideology based on the myth of progress and infinite growth, food biodiversity loss has a host of pervasive and worrisome consequences. A decreasing diversity (be it biodiversity, cultural diversity, or food diversity) increases the vulnerability and exposure of humans (of their ecologies, economies, food systems, livelihoods) to any stochastic (unexpected, unforeseeable) factor in the productive systems. For example, a low genetic diversity in crops exposes the whole yield to collapse, a low cultural diversity in agricultural practices reduces the adaptive options in an ever-changing context, and the loss of food variety actually consumed may trigger nutritional deficits. This role of risk insurance of food biodiversity is particularly important in times of climate change, of intense, rapid and unexpected change: diversity acts as an insurance on the future of humankind.
Promoting diversity, and its sustainable use, is also key to saving small-scale producers and communities, and their ecologically-tuned livelihood practices, from the roller of the commodity frontiers into local ecologies and cultures. This frontier manifests in the commodification of natural resources, foods and livelihoods, in the concomitant depletion of biological and cultural diversity, and in the transformation of small producers into peripheral actors of a global economy to which they often succumb (for example losing their fields under debt, out-migrating, and committing suicide).
We need to counter the process of food biodiversity loss to build a sustainable future. There is an urgent need to literally and metaphorically cultivate diversity, reorganizing food systems toward their relocalization and decarbonisation, re-attuning them to local agrobiodiversity and ecologies, and producing food in ways that support the interconnectedness of life.
Agrobiodiversity has been seriously eroded and lost at all levels over the last century, due to several trends and causes that also function as barriers to the implementation and scaling-up of practices that enhance biodiversity. A new agroecological paradigm is required, rooted in fundamentally different relationships between agriculture and the environment, and between food systems and society.
IPES Food identified seven case studies that provide concrete examples of how, in spite of the many barriers to change, people around the world have been able to fundamentally rethink and redesign food systems around agroecological principles.
I would point out just two, very serious results. One from a nutrition point of view, the other from an environmental and economical point of view.
Different food crops contribute different nutrients to the human body. Therefore, a lack of diversity will mean for people to consume less diverse foods, hence to deficiencies of some important nutrients. This may result in poor health, stunted growth and poor performance of individual in the population. The situation will be worse when we look at children in growing ages.
Different food crops have different environmental requirements. Some can tolerate adverse climatic change effects – such as cold, flooding as well as biotic stress from diseases and pests. It means that with less diversity, the crops are vulnerable to any climate change effects as well as increased diseases and pests. This will result to low productivity that will lead to both food insecurity and loss of livelihoods, for the missing income that would have come from what they would have sold out.
Climate change is an inevitable event that has already started to roll and showing its effects on different aspects of today’s world. The sharpest agro-ecological impacts of global climate change are in the temperature and moisture regime.
In regards to tropical and subtropical agriculture, increases in temperature and decreases in available moisture are the fundamental changes limiting plant production. Temperature imbalance is a catalyst for biophysical disruption, and has the cascade effect of creating other negative impacts. The changes are happening faster than we have anticipated and simple correctional steps like limiting emissions, afforestation etc. shall hardly have a quick solution. It is time we have explored the existing crop diversity that can escape and be resilient to the unpredictable vagaries of climate.
It is well known that crop yields are quite sensitive to change in temperature and precipitation, especially during flowering and fruit development stages. Maximum and minimum temperature, as well as seasonal shifts, can have large effects on crop growth and production. Greater variability of precipitation, including flooding, drought, and more extreme rainfall events has affected food security in many parts of the world, including India.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop resilient system that can buffer crops against climate variability and extreme climate events. There can be variety of ways that diversified agricultural systems are able to mitigate the effects of climate change on crop production. Crop diversification can be at inter and intra-species level and programmes are to be developed for promoting crop diversification approach both at inter and intra-species level for climate change adaptation.
Increasing farmers’ options for crops and varieties will help them to face variable and changing climates. Having more than one variety can help to mitigate climate risk, as different events affect some varieties more than others. Having a constant stream of different varieties reaching framer’s field will help to get best ones for local conditions and dynamically adapt to any on-going chances in the climate. More the diversity, more is the resultant buffering capacity of the crop system.
We just talked about how the crop system diversification can adapt to climate change. There should also be a mechanism on how the “diverse” crops produced by the farmers will have a market so that the farming system as a whole becomes sustainable. The keyword here we are looking for is “Demand”. It said that if we diversify out lunch or dinner “plate”, we can diversify the cropping system. Mainstreaming different climate resilient crops and their different varieties can create a demand for these food items and the farmers will be motivated to grow them.
Citing an example of millets like sorghum, pearl millet etc..which are quite climate resilient. They can withstand drought , high temperatures and even the 2 degrees or 3 degrees of temperature raise (postulated by the IPCC).
Indian Institute for Millet Research is holding cook-shops for the last few years to develop recipes and “fast food” from millets. Also they are incubating processing industries to prepare over-the-shelf food items made from millets. Celebrity chefs are invited to develop recipes for hotel and restaurants. This is creating a huge demand for these crops, which were earlier pushed back from the pressure of rice and wheat.
This shows the challenge how historically we have “lost interest” in diverse foods. Forget about animals, if we consider plants only, we are currently tapping less than 0.4% of what is available. The good news is that only this 0.4% is under threat from Climate Change, since we are currently growing them. Seeing the brighter side, more diverse we make the food systems, less will be the pressure on agriculture and less stress for us.
The role of soil biota in the supply of ecosystem services has become a key focus for researchers over the last few decades. Soil quality depends on the physiochemical, biological and biochemical, and microbial properties of the soil. These properties, especially soil microbial properties, are sensitive to anthropogenic activities.
Excessive use of inorganic fertilizers can cause soil acidification with negative influence on the environment. Conversely, crop diversification can improve the composition of soil microbial communities and enhances the critical biological functions of the soil, such as nutrient cycling. Many anthropogenic interventions can cause shifts in the function of rhizosphere bacterial communities. However, our understanding of how anthropogenic interventions associated with medium- to long-term soil management affects the diversity, composition, structure and function of soil microbial communities in soils is poor.
Biodiversity mainstreaming across agricultural sectors needs to conserve biodiversity and manage natural resource sustainability. This would protect the ecosystem function of biodiversity: nutrient cycling, soil formation and rehabilitation, carbon sequestration, habitat provision for wild species, biological pest control and pollination. By adopting agrobiodiversity, the agriculture of the future would become more resilient and, thus more diverse, and it would ensure healthy and nutritious Diets. Temporal diversification (crop rotation) and spatial diversification (intercropping) are important tools for increasing agricultural productivity and enhancing the sagacious use of natural resources .
Optimizing crop diversity in both time and space can exploit soil resources such as water and nutrients, maximize the use of niches and soil biodiversity, and improves the resilience of the whole system. In some cases, crop plant can produce up to 21% of the total root exudates into rhizosphere, which would dramatically impact soil microorganisms; this will have large impacts on soil microorganisms at a global scale. However, different crop species in a rotation, such as legumes, oilseeds, cereals, or specialty crops, may have variable, long-term impacts on the system sustainability. Among the factors identifies as major threats to the continued provision of soil ecosystem services, the loss of soil biodiversity is the fourth most important, after soil erosion, organic carbon decline and nutrient imbalance.
UN FAO has developed a risk index generated by combining eight potential stressors of soil biodiversity: loss of aboveground diversity; pollution and nutrient overloading; over-grazing; intensive agriculture; fire; soil erosion; desertification and climate change.
Anthropogenic activities have remarkable influences on the microorganisms in agroecosystems, which would further influence environmental sustainability, economic activities and the human society.
The contribution of soil microbes to agroecosystem services and productivity rely on high colonisation and a diverse microbial community to maximise crop yield, and their biological and ecological functions are very critical in an environment. They cannot be ignored, considering the important roles they play in soil environment. The soil microbial communities are more resilient to many agricultural practices than often assumed, but limited long-term field studies are available and our ability to manage beneficial microorganisms to favour crop yield is compromised by a rudimentary knowledge of many important aspects of their growing habits and symbiosis, and how they would function properly in complex ecosystems.
Nature excels through mutualisms. Healthy soils are a diverse, cooperative ecosystem that facilitates healthy food crops which, in turn, create the conditions for thriving, healthy soils–a win-win situation.
Healthy soil | A healthy soil isn’t just “dirt.” It’s a dynamic ecosystem of inorganic matter–including silt, sand, clay, and minerals, along with air and water–as well as organic matter consisting of decayed biomass crawling with a diverse collection of living organisms ranging from earthworms, moles, grubs, centipedes, millipedes, snails, slugs, beetles, and ants to microorganismal bacteria, fungi, algae, and so on. A single inch of healthy soil, depending on conditions, can take 30 to 1,000 years to form. While the living portion of soil amounts to around 5 percent, it’s teeming with thousands of larger species and tens of millions of microorganisms per 1⁄4 teaspoon (1.2 ml). Together, this soil food web delivers vital ecosystem services.
Soil ecosystem services | Living soil organisms recycle nutrients by feeding on dead plants. Key nutrients include organic nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorous (organic versions of these nutrients more readily enter into plant metabolic activities). Healthy soil constituents help maintain optimally functional soil chemistry as measured by electrical conductivity, moisture content, and pH.
A healthy soil content also leads to a healthy soil 3D architecture, particularly the presence of air and water-filled pores throughout the soil matrix. Pores provide at least two major functions. First, they allow for greater water infiltration and retention–biochemical activities rely on the presence of water and air throughout the soil matrix. Second, they are conducive to root penetration.
Favorable water infiltration rates increase water-holding capacity and prevent the loss of soil and nutrients due to stormwater runoff–creating more resilient farmland in the face of climate disruption.
A diversity of soil insects increases plant vigor and lower stress by reducing the occurrence of plant diseases. They do so by competing with, antagonizing, and ultimately curbing soil-borne pests, and by attracting other organisms which feed on potential crop pests. Robust and healthy plants can better express their inherent abilities to resist further disease exposure.
Impact of healthy soil ecosystems on food diversity | Healthy, diverse plants, lead to significantly higher microbial diversity in the soil which, in turn, sustains plant diversity, vigor, and output. It’s a mutually beneficial situation that creates the condition for greater and improved food diversity.
– “Soil and Ecosystem Services:
Current Knowledge and Evidences From Italian Case Studies.”
Link to the article
– “Plant Diversity Effects on Soil Microorganisms: Spatial and Temporal
Heterogeneity of Plant Inputs Increase Soil Biodiversity.” Link to the article
– “Microfaunal Soil Food Webs in Mediterranean Semi-Arid Agroecosystems. Does Organic
Management Improve Soil Health?.”
Link to the article
People and Agrobiodiversity
In India, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) organises around 1 million women entrepreneurs and smallholder farmers to practice sustainable farming and agroforestry. Through its network, SEWA supports women farm and forestry cooperatives to acquire land for agroforestry, produce vermicompost – where worms are used to turn organic waste into high quality compost – and practice organic cultivation.
Small farmers and in particular women farmers have been the custodians of agricultural biodiversity down the ages. They have woven their livelihoods around the integrated management of diverse natural resources, viz. crops and wild plants, edible roots and tubers, tree products and wild and domesticated animals) and their use for household food and nutrition security. Their intrinsic knowledge about the diverse use of different plants and their different parts (leaves, fruits, nuts, seeds, roots), both domesticated and from the wild both as food and as medicine, forms the edifice of household food security. In addition, their awareness about desirable characteristics, like resistance to pest and disease, taste and cooking quality, processing and storage properties has been the basis for selection and adaptation of plant varieties to agriculture and local food systems in different parts of the world. Likewise has been the case with regard to small livestock, by way of adaptation to local conditions like feed availability and resistance to disease. All this is of huge relevance for the conservation of plant and animal genetic resources and their diversity.
The evolution of the farming system can be seen from this integrated management of natural resources by way of space and time, leading to the evolution of practices of inter-cropping and mixed cropping of different plant varieties, and combination of crop and animal husbandry practices like for example rice-fish farming systems, to provide for household food security; and going one step further supply to local markets, becoming a source of income and livelihoods. Agrobiodiversity, women, and food and livelihood security are intrinsically linked in this manner and have contributed to the wide range of food systems one can find across the globe. This picture is however seriously threatened today in the globalised world of integrated markets where two to three crops have come to dominate the food system. The world is witness to rapid erosion of genetic diversity of both plant and animal resources and related ecosystem services; and threats posed by global warming and climate change loom large. Women continue to play a major role in agriculture, but are most often not recognized as farmers and given their due.
Going back to the roots, recognizing the role of women in conservation of agrobiodiversity and building sustainable livelihoods around them has to be the way forward, if the global community is serious about attaining the Sustainable Development Goal targets.
There are several examples that can be found in pockets across the globe, where such agri-food value chains have been developed and are in operation, e.g. millet value chain managed by women’s groups in India and Nepal. Highlighting the nutritional value in such indigenous crops and their potential to contribute to address the challenge of malnutrition can help strengthen the value chain; the example of quinoa comes to mind here! While the potential may be there, it has to be recognized however that many of these value chains are and will remain local and will have to be nurtured. The vigilance and active role of civil society organizations, farmers groups and supportive legislations (e.g. Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act in India) is crucial in this context.
The Smart Food mantra of finding holistic solutions that are good for you, the planet and the farmer, relies on having diversity in agriculture and food. Typically these issues are tackled in silos. Sustainable solutions will be solutions that consider the nutrition/health needs in unison to the environmental needs and farmer welfare. Diversity in our diets is important for health, diversity on farm is important environmentally as well as for risk management for the farmer. This will require also tapping into the diversity of the genetic resources to find species and genetic material that can improve nutritional levels of the food commodities and cope with climate change.
Also part of the Smart Food approach is diversifying staples across Africa and Asia. Given that staples may be 70% of the plate and sometimes eaten 3 times a day, this is how we can have a big impact. Given also that the staple is often low in nutrition and refined eg white refined rice, unless we tackle diversifying the staple, we will not have a major impact on some of the key diet related health and nutrition issues.
Diversity in the diet and on farm is a key part of the solution, however it is not diversity with just any foods – but Smart Foods ie foods that are good for you, the planet and the farmer.
Bioversity International developed the
Agrobiodiversity Index, a tool to help measure and manage agrobiodiversity looking at diets, production and genetic resources. This tool will guide companies and governments in investing in resilient and sustainable food systems.
Different food species complement each other in providing different nutrients, critical for a healthy diet. A human diet requires at least 51 nutrients in adequate amounts consistently. In addition to producing sufficient calories, a major, previously overlooked challenge in agriculture and food systems is to provide an adequate diversity of nutrients necessary for a healthy life.
Many studies show that nutritional adequacy of the diet improves as a higher diversity of food items, food groups or food biological species is consumed. This is explained by the fact that different species vary in nutritional composition and thereby complement each other in providing the variety of nutrients needed for a balanced diet.
I find two figures particularly powerful in visualizing this:
The figure on the right represents the percentage of recommended nutrient density (RND) for a diet of white rice and the addition of a variety of foods. It is a very classic figure from FAO training materials , that is used in many nutrition courses. This figure nicely illustrates that as you add more species ingredients to a white rice based diet, your nutrient requirements, especially your micronutrient requirements, are increasingly met.
The second figure (Source: Lachat et al. 2018) illustrates the relationship between biological species richness in the diet and the mean nutrient adequacy ratio (MAR), for children and women across a diversity of countries.
A diversity of food species helps to build resilience for nutrient security, in case of shocks, like climate or price shocks. Our food and agricultural systems are continuously exposed to change and shocks, e.g. climate change and variability, market fluctuations, pests and diseases.
By having multiple species providing similar nutrients to our food system, we build in a buffer in case some species will get lost (or their harvest is dramatically reduced) due to for example changing weather conditions. Other species can then still provide the nutrients needed for a healthy diet.
Food biodiversity offers a variety of options, for cultural and individual’s preferences. In addition to the biological mechanisms of how food biodiversity provide people with greater nutrient security (two previous paragraphs), we can not underestimate the importance of how food biodiversity contributes to the cultural acceptability dimension of nutrient security. Food biodiversity simply provides a larger diversity of options for human’s choice. This diversity of options is often rooted in cultural traditions and identity.
Managing food biodiversity is thereby also managing current and future options for nutrient security.
Poor quality diets are one of the greatest risks to adequate nutrition and health globally. Poor quality diets contribute to deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals (also referred to as micronutrient deficiency or hidden hunger) as well as diet-related non-communicable disease such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer as well as overweight and obesity. Poor quality diets are responsible for the greatest burden of disease worldwide, affecting countries and population groups at all levels of economic development. Some of the leading causes of poor diet quality are diets low in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and diets too high in sugar and salt. These problems are compounded by dietary energy intake which in some cases is too low to meet dietary energy requirements and in other cases far exceeds dietary energy needs.
Food biodiversity, defined as the diversity of plants, animals and other organisms used for food covering the genetic resources within species, between species and provided by ecosystems (FAO and Bioversity, 2017) is the foundation we rely upon for supporting food and nutrition security. There are thousands of species, of fruits, vegetables, pulse, nuts, seeds and grains currently referred to as underutilized, that could be mainstreamed to improve diet quality. For example, a recent review documented 1097 species of vegetables used for food, however hundreds of these species remain poorly utilized and unknown to consumers and farmers. In addition, there can be significant nutrient differences within species, the orange-fleshed sweet potato and Karat banana are two good examples of intra-specific diversity that can lead to increased availability of vitamins within a food, simply based on production and consumption of a variety within a species. Another example of use of biodiversity to improve nutrition comes from fish. The consumption of small, whole fish species such as Darkina, Mola and Dhela contain far higher levels of Vitamin A and Vitamin B12 than do other species such as Tilapia and Carp (Kennedy, G., Stoian, D., Hunter, D. and Kikulwe, E., 2016. Agricultural biodiversity for healthy, diverse diets. Bioversity International.
Taking a food systems approach, which considers the flow of foods from production to plate and the actors involved within the system is helpful to gain a better understanding of bottlenecks impacting diet quality. For example, production of vegetables and fruits is currently insufficient to meet the needs of the human population, with supply deficits of 22% on average and up to 58% in low-income countries. Connecting consumers with the nutritious foods that are produced can also be a challenge. Numerous bottlenecks exist within value chains for example infrastructure for transport and storage, functioning and accessible markets and cold chain logistics are a few challenges in low- and middle-income countries. Finally, to improve diet quality a greater emphasis on consumer education and awareness is needed to create the shift in demand for the elements within diets that can lead to better nutrition security.
Two challenges that farmers face when diversifying their crops are
1) trustworthy information on crop choice and production methods;
2) potential markets for diverse products.
In each case, information must span a whole `value chain’ from access to appropriate planting materials through to desirable end-uses for diverse crop products. For underutilised crops that are often grown on a small scale in different countries and communities, such information is often fragmentary, of variable quality or simply missing. Much of the knowledge remains with the farmers and communities who cultivate such crops or is in a form (languages or scientific papers) that is inaccessible to others.
To make such knowledge available to all stakeholders it must be “shareable” with non-specialists. This requires integration of all the relevant information about different crops into a knowledge system that can be accessed by farmers and other involved along the value chain. Whilst the knowledge about different crops and their diverse food and other uses may have been gathered over many generations by diffuse communities, we can now use novel methods to curate and collate such information through digital tools and social media applications that rapidly disseminate the information to all stakeholders.
Over 50% of the global requirement for proteins and calories are met by just three crops, maize, wheat and rice; only 150 crops are commercialized on a significant global scale. Yet, humankind has, over time, used more than 7,000 edible species. Numerous neglected and underutilized species offer the potential to diversify not only the human diet, but also increase food production levels, and, thus, enable more sustainable and resilient agro- and horti-food systems.
Industrialization of the agricultural sector in rural aread in Italy cuased a serious population decline, that got even more serious after 2008’s economic crisis. This depopulation determined a progressive aging of farmers. Only 2.9% of land-owning farmers in Italy are under 35 years old (while in the EU is 6%). These young entrepreneurs are also the ones who are growing faster, importing in the country more sustainable farming practices and repopulating rural areas, thus safeguarding the immense natural heritage of the country.
Enhancing local economies through better production practices is the main focus of Good-Land. Our commitment is to generate social and environmental impact, with a focus on farming lands abandoned by people, farmers and inhabitants. Many different farming lands in Europe, especially in mountain areas, are characterized by the absence of people, who were originally the land’s keepers of these areas). Farming and breeding are not rentable in the mountain compared with the big “industrial” agriculture of the flat land and people living there are totally dispirited. Farming and breeding in the mountain areas look less convenient compared to industrial farming.
But many and many marginal and mountain lands/areas are the right place where to re-activate, re-create biodiversity and a real agroecological agriculture, where biodiversity becomes “the core business” of new food activities.
When food is produced in a harmonic way with the territory (without exploiting the land, the animals or the nature), when it is cultivated with respect of fertility and the natural cycle of life of the animal, is totally different in nutritional characteristics, usually not allergenic, finds a good relation with the human microbiome and really nice organoleptic taste.
We can call it good food, as opposed to the industrial food produced in industrial ways, constraining wheat, fruits, vegetables and livestock to a forced developing in a very depressed area totally bare of any natural richness.
This “new “ biodiversity-friendly and agroecological agriculture can represent a real opportunity to re-inhabiting marginal and mountain lands/areas, to re-activate life and a good economy for many people.
Diversity is the spice of life, and biological diversity in many ways underpins so many aspects of food, from its nutritional value, its flavor and taste, and even how it is produced. I’m typically not one to argue for silver bullets, but food diversity is our best bet at long-lasting sustainability, and a food production that works with, rather than against nature. Let’s start with clarifying some terms however.
Many forms of diversity are involved in healthy and sustainable food. Dietary diversity, which may be the first thing that people think of when we speak of food diversity, is the diversity of foods that we eat.
By some estimates, there are 30,000-60,000 species of edible plants, in additional to countless species of edible fungi, algae, fish and shellfish, and animals. Eating a diversity of foods is generally considered the core of a healthy diets – particularly eating a diversity of plants and plant parts: fruits, stems, leaves, roots, seeds. Michael Pollan in his book Food Rules reminds us to “eat your colors”, this makes sense since the green, red, yellow, white, orange, and brown colors of food often represent distinct and complementary nutrients. The recent EAT-Lancet Commission’s Planetary Health Diet recommends that half of our diets be comprised of fruits, vegetables and seeds, with 30% of our caloric intake coming from whole grains – rice, maize, and wheat certainly, but why not teff, fonio, sorghum, millet, or other pseudo-grains like buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth? And a greater variety of plant-based proteins such a beans and pulses (0-700 grams per week).
Dietary diversity can have two important links to sustainable farming. First, eating a diversity of foods can support farming practices that grow crops in environments where they are best suited, and create markets for a diversity of foods, hopefully allowing farmers to select crops that are adapted to soils, climate, water availability. Our over-dependence on a handful of crops has driven a style of farming that has sought to adapt crops to different environments; or more recently new forms of hothouse or vertical agriculture that adapts the environment to a crops needs. Agroecology, in contrast, tries to find the best crops for a specific environmental condition. The second way that dietary diversity can impact the environment is by increasing our consumption of plant-based food, with more moderate consumption of meat. The EAT-Lancet Commission’s Planetary Health diet recommends 0-200 grams of beef, pork or lamb per week, 0-420 grams of poultry per week, and 0-700 grams of fish per week.
Livestock is an important part of circular agriculture; cattle and other grazers can be important means of conserving grassland plant, bird, and animal diversity in grassland biomes, thus the recommendation is to consume moderate amounts of animal meat, favoring farmers whom work hard to humanely produce quality food while protecting biodiversity and the environment. Overconsumption of meat is one of the biggest drivers of climate change and can be a major driver of biodiversity loss when forests are cleared for meat or forage production.
Often forgotten in food diversity, is the biodiversity that supports food production. There is a highly invisible workforce of bacteria, fungi, insects, birds and other critters that contribute to the production of high quality and nutritious foods. Increasingly we are becoming comfortable thinking about bees and the pollination services they provide, but entire soil ecosystems are frequently taken for granted yet critical to sustainable food production. Even less understood are the evolutionary forces behind healthy foods. What foods we eat have little impact on sustainable production – however how food is produced, and where it is produced make or break the sustainability questions. Let’s take these one by one.
Field scale practices are critical to sustainability. Health professionals and the public are increasingly understanding that the guy microbiome (the diversity of critters living in our guts) are essential to human health. A plant root, is simply a gut turned inside out. It is where nutrients are absorbed to allow for plant growth. Roots are surrounded by fungi, bacteria, and all sorts of other biodiversity which drive nutrient cycles, capture and store carbon, and filter water. Practices that limit soil disturbances such as no-till; or which limit the use of agricultural chemicals, particularly biocides (fungicides, herbicides, pesticides) but also fertilizers can help support healthy soil ecosystems (soil microbiome). Leaving plant material on soils, and cultivating a diversity of crops, either through polycultures or through rotations are key means of keeping biodiversity health, and functioning.
Biodiversity is essential around fields as well. Keeping wild vegetation around a field, or in a field as in agroforestry systems (trees mixed with crops) creates habitat for species that can contribute pollination or pest control services. The Planetary Health diets calls for increasing consumption of a diversity of fruits, nuts and vegetables because of their nutritious qualities. These are also the crops that are most critically dependent on pollinators, not just European honeybees, but on a diversity bees, flies, moths, butterflies, beetles and other critters. Wasps, ladybird beetles, and other biodiversity in contrast can play important roles preying on crop pests and keeping diseases in check. Cultivating a diversity of crops, reducing disturbance of soils and vegetation all serve to maintain habitat in and around fields and are important means of conserving the biodiversity that support healthy food production.
Let wrap up with a quick note on the most poorly understood interactions between food diversity and sustainability: evolution. Many of the flavors such as spicy chili peppers, aromatic cinnamon, or the bitter taste of arugula are the product of the evolutionary chemical warfare between plants and their predators. The flavors that we have come to enjoy where developed by these plants to protect their leaves, seeds and stems from insect, fungal, or other pests. Thus while pests can be pesky, they are in fact the source of the spice of life. We’re still not quite sure what happens to these flavors if plants are grown in environments where they are fully protected from pests, but one hypothesis is that they will eventually lose those flavors, and unique chemical properties such as antioxidants, which make them particularly nutritive and delicious.
We live in a uniquely biological planet. Diversity, in all of its forms is the hallmark of life. Protecting and working with diversity, rather than against, whether the diversity in our guts, on our plates, or in and around our fields is likely to be the best path to both health and sustainability.
Safeguarding food biodiversity affirms the unique differences we see in places around the world. Each space sees a set of plants that have adapted to the climate and altitude of a space. We then see how they are integrated into society, in its culture, religion and beliefs of its people. Food is part of who we are and connects to ceremony, celebration and family in whatever expression that takes. Losing this will have profound impacts on who we are.
Rich biodiversity holds cultural, ecological and economic value. In the Andes, for example, farmers know of as many as 200 different varieties of indigenous potatoes and, in Nepal, they farm approximately 2000 varieties of rice.
Supply chain and agrobiodiversity
The packaged food sector has an opportunity to enhance crop and food diversity, improving the economic and ecological success of farmers, while also offering consumes something they value. Many food companies design food in response to consumer trends, while also looking for the cheapest ingredients: corn, soy, wheat, rice – these are the foundation of processed food. The opportunity companies should embrace is to design products based on diverse rotations that bring value to the farmers and to consumers.
Diverse crop rotations can build soil, help capture carbon, and reduce nutrient runoff, while also helping break disease and pest cycles on farms. But this diversity needs to have economic value. We can’t demand a farmer walk away from the commodity rotation of of corn-soy into and forge the market for new crops on their own. Packaged food designed for ecological and economic stability for farmers is the future, and companies are starting to see this.
Clif Bar’s innovation team designing new products that have the right nutritional diversity for consumers and increased crop diversity for farmers’ rotations. For example, if we buy soy from a group farmers, we are asking ourselves what else could they rotate or intercrop that we can use and experimenting in our test kitchen: sweet sorghum has complex and deep root systems that build soil, and it makes a great sweetener; nutritious whole grains like oats can also break disease cycles and suppress weeds after corn; yellow peas are a trending plant protein and can add nitrogen for the next crop reducing costly fertilizer inputs; and the list goes on – sunflowers for a nutritious oil, pumpkins for seed with great flavor and protein. All of these can be grown at scale in corn country.
Its our job to design products, educate more consumers about the value of these products for themselves and for planet and farmer, and in so doing increase demand. Diverse crop rotations are not sustainable without economic payoffs. As farmers around here say, “It’s hard to be green when you’re in the red.
A 2018 report by The Food Marketing Institute reported that 86 percent of American shoppers agreed that if food manufacturers or retailers provided access to complete and easy to understand definitions for all the ingredients, it would result in more trust. 80 percent of shoppers said that they are more likely to be loyal to a brand that provides more in-depth information, beyond what is provided on the physical label. 54 percent of shoppers are even willing to pay more for a product that has additional product information. 69 percent of shoppers say it is extremely important or important that brands and manufacturers provide detailed information such as what is in their food and how it is made.
What is essential is invisible to the eye. This is one of the most famous quotations from the Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: a pivotal book of adolescence for all of us. In the food world, the knowledge and management of the supply chain is one of the most essential and at the same time still invisible, little known, often penalized. Sometimes even inappropriately: a wave of green washing on a packaging or an advertisement, without the true and healthy knowledge of the topic.
The supply chain is blind. Blind for everyone, from those who every day have to deal with low land to those who arrive last, at the end, at the supermarket checkout or at the restaurant table.
The supply chain is a dichotomy: many talk about it, almost nobody knows it. And in today’s world, there is a trail of unprecedented political, economic, social, anthropological and ethical issues. Complex.
It is a problem of 2 kind of cultures. Culture as “agri-culture” because each ingredient has become a commodity, has become a number, a code, an index to be listed on the stock exchange. And precisely for this reason the evaluation parameters of a culture, which is in Italy, Europe or in the rest of the world, have become quantity, productivity, price, standardization and uniformity. Of the crop, in fact, little remains.
Very often in a manufacturer’s list, a trader’s or in front of the supermarket shelf what matters is the price. In the processing industry, in addition to the price, performance parameters are taken into consideration, and almost never organoleptic or ethical ones.
This transformation of cultures into commodities in today’s globalized society, with various social, climatic and increasingly wide gaps between rich and poor, brings with it various ethical and social issues. Issues of sustainability and future.
In some terms, not giving importance to biodiversity can mean stealing the future from all those families and young generations of farmers, in the north as in the southern hemisphere.
And everything returns to culture, intended as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of our society.
In such a wonderful Moebius ring where everything is tied and dependent and in an endless relationship with each other, starting to get informed through reliable, open, safe and complete sources is fundamental. Searching the web for information on supply chains, varieties, cultural techniques and the economic aspects of these supply chains is very difficult, almost impossible. It is plenty of smoky, bland and hidden information even to the direct interested players in the supply chains. Unless you are a technician (agronomic, economic, social, depending on the topic) it is very difficult to get a clear picture of reality, if not with everyday experience, if not with the continuous relationship.
It becomes essential to ask questions, to be curious, to be vaccinated from fake news and to be fact checking experts.
Yuval Noha Harari was very clear: “in a world flooded with irrelevant information, lucidity is power”.
It’s a job, after all. A beautiful job.
All together we can return to the supply chain. Reconstructing and rethinking supply chains that are sometimes not blind but with eyes wide open and a long-term vision towards a sustainable future for all. The road is bumpy but less than expected, with good intentions on the part of all the journey will be lighter.
The 5 biggest problems that companies have to face in the food supply chain are:
1. Lack of traceability
2. Inability to maintain the safety and quality of your products
3. Inadequate communication between parties
4. Rising supply chain costs
5. Failure to track and control inventory in warehouses and stores
Blockchain has been looked at as one of the most promising technologies when it comes to traceability and supply chain control.
Blockchain’s capability of tracking ownership records and tamper-resistance can be used to solve urgent issues such as food fraud, safety recalls, supply chain inefficiency and food traceability and open up a series of interesting perspectives for increasing food security and assuring benefit sharing.
In A Guide to Traceability, A Practical Approach to Advance Sustainability in Global Supply Chains, the United Nations Global Compact and Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) use a hybrid of the widely accepted definitions of traceability from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), along with the added key component of a sustainability focus as: The ability to identify and trace the history, distribution, location and application of products, parts and materials, to ensure the reliability of sustainability claims, in the areas of human rights, labour (including health and safety), the environment and anti-corruption.
Traceability and transparency are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Fully traceable supply chains can remain opaque if the people who represent the stakeholders choose not to share data. Some also mistakenly believe that technologies like blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and artificial intelligence can supersede the need for human participation in order for traceability systems to succeed. While digital tools can improve and protect data in a system, appropriate reward structures should be considered to incentivize stakeholders to share data. Data sharing enables traceability in addition to the measurement of the impacts supply chains have on biodiversity while helping buyers locate sources of specific biodiverse commodities.
For example, Ericsson’s Connected Mangroves project combines cloud, machine-to-machine and mobile broadband to help the local community in Selangor, Malaysia, to better manage the growth of new mangrove saplings. Wireless connectivity is used to capture data relevant to mangroves’ survival such as water level, humidity, soil moisture and temperature, and other hazards in the environment. Data is collected by sensors attached to mangroves and is transmitted over a cloud system to dashboard accessible to concerned stakeholders, such as local authorities, fisherfolk and communities within the area.
Mangrove forests play a pivotal role in the protection of seaside communities from typhoons, flooding, erosion and other coastal hazards, serve as habitat for various aquatic life forms, and function as a water filtration system that helps surrounding ecosystems, like coral reefs, thrive. The project has achieved great success, with 70-80 percent of the mangroves now reaching maturity compared with only 20-40 percent that reached adulthood prior to the project. Greater biodiversity in nature enables greater biodiversity in food through consumer education.
Consumers are demanding traceability and transparency. According to an article featuring data from Label Insight and the Food Marketing Institute states that consumers increasingly demand transparency and a closer connection to their food. So much so that 75% of consumers are more likely to switch to a brand that provides more in-depth product information, beyond what’s provided on the physical label. In 2016, just 39% said they would switch brands. Data sharing through traceability enables authentic storytelling content can include educational information and content about how consumers can incorporate biodiversity into their diets.
Agricultural diversification and sustainable intensification offer enormous opportunities for addressing hunger and malnutrition especially in the context of climate change. In this regard, Neglected and Underutilized Crops (NUS) offer diverse and nutritious food resources. NUS are important in specific agro-ecological niches and are often linked with the traditions and cultural heritage in their places of origin. They are an essential source of protein and micronutrients, enhance climate resilience, improve agricultural sustainability and boost household income and livelihoods thanks to their considerable commercial potential.
Many studies have highlighted the consistent contribution of NUS to generating income in both domestic and international markets. In India, adding value to little millet enhanced farmer incomes three-fold and generated employment in villages, particularly for women, which improved their social status and self-esteem. Globally, there is a rising interest in promoting healthy diets, and NUS, with its multiple benefits, could contribute in novel ways to human health and nutrition. The growing demand, through proper awareness raising, promoting and facilitation, could be exploited to develop markets for promising NUS for the benefit of local communities and indigenous groups. Promoting niche markets through eco-labelling, fair trade, organic and slow food initiatives, geographic indications, Globally Important Agricultural Heritage systems (an FAO initiative started in 2002) and one-village-one-product may be particularly useful.
A recent trend is the increasing market demand for ‘traditional’ foods. More affluent urban consumers rediscovered local foods, leading to a revival of traditional food systems intertwined with the cultural identity not only of indigenous peoples. Fostering NUS and conserving traditional food systems is a powerful way to contribute to saving local ecosystems and food sources.
Some strategies for improved marketing:
– Identify market forces and marketing strategies to improve market opportunities
– Create awareness of potential markets and market demand for underutilized crops among stakeholders throughout the supply chain, including farmers, collectors, transporters, wholesalers and retailers and national agricultural extension and marketing organizations
– Utilize further the Farmer TV Channels operated by government agricultural institutions to provide market information to smallholder farmers. This helps as farmers rely primarily on collectors and traders to get information on current and future market demands and prices for agro/food products through mass media such as TV and radio.
– Provide marketing support to growers through government procurement.
– Provide alternative marketing arrangements through contract farming and the farmer-producer company model.
– Develop and adopt more efficient crop-production technologies along with favourable policies, and market support to encourage farmers to increase areas under NUS cultivation.
– Consider tools such as Geographic Indication for marketing.
Dr. Diane Ragone of Hawaii’s Breadfruit Institute developed a step by step process that allows the sharing of a breadfruit variety’s germplasm with a private company, and includes a mechanism to provide a royalty to the crop’s country of origin. This model allowed her institute to “give back” royalties to the farmers of Samoa in exchange of the economical use of their breadfruit by international companies.
There is a lack of a consensus definition for neglected and underutilised crop species. There is even a lack of consensus on what these crops should be referred to as with different names referred to by different names e.g., orphan crops, neglected crops, underutilised crops, forgotten crops, minor crops, etc.
Neglected and underutilised crop species (NUCS) are crops that have played an important role in ensuring community and household food and nutrition security through providing healthy alternatives when the main crop failed or during periods in-between subsequent harvest but today have not been under-researched, under-utilised and are mainly confined to smallholder farming areas
Promoting biodiversity in agriculture, including through greater diversity of underutilized crops can benefit human and planetary health. Diversity in farming systems help build resilience in face of shocks and stresses, while also enhancing food security and nutrition. Beyond just providing food, biodiversity in agriculture is important in providing regulatory ecosystem services like nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, soil erosion control, and reducing greenhouse gases. This is particularly important to ensure food and nutritional security for the current increasing population in a world of finite resources.
Furthermore, unlike most staple crops, underutilized crops can often be well–adapted to local growing conditions.
For instance, neglected underutilized crop species that are common in Sub-Saharan Africa have provided dietary support to indigenous communities, and have adapted to a range of ecological niches, low input agriculture and may have tolerance to environmental stresses (Chivenge et al. 2015). Yet currently there are significant obstacles to greater biodiversity in agriculture, one of which is that cultivating underutilized crops tend to be much less competitive or unattractive to farmers compared to major crops. Unlike major crops that are promoted through formal seed systems, markets, and extension services, infrastructure and incentives are lacking for underutilized crops. Lacking market-oriented research and attention by governments and policymakers, has limited the development of improved varieties, enhanced cultivation practices, technologies, and efficient market chains for underutilized crops (Padulosi et al. 2013).
There is limited information describing basic aspects of the genetic potential, agronomy, water requirements and nutrition of underutilized crops, hinder access by a greater audience (Chivenge et al. 2015). Further, the current international policy and legal frameworks on biodiversity and plant genetic resources lack support and funding for the conservation and sustainable use of the genetic resources of many underutilized crops.
To address these challenges, strengthening economic incentives will be key. For sustainable measures to encourage crop diversity, production of underutilized crops should translate to livelihood benefits for farmers and their households, such as in terms of enhanced income, increased food consumption, or greater productivity (Bellon et al. 2015). Foremost, an adequate supply of seeds and guidelines on production techniques need to be provided to farmers, including through agricultural extension services, to foster greater demand among producers. Mechanisms to support market facilities, storage services, extension services, credit and the use of ICTs are equally important in creating interest among farmers.
It is also important to provide economic incentives to farmers, including subsidized inputs and mechanisms to support the price of underutilized crops. Policies regarding food pricing or farm subsidies should take into account the nutritional and ecological value of these underutilized crops (Adhikari et al. 2017). Policies like including
underutilized crops in school feeding programs or subsidizing cultivation and marketing can further incentive production (Padulosi et al. 2013).
Complementary institutional mechanisms also need to be strengthened. For example, institutions will also play a key role in better informing local communities of the benefits of local agro-biodiversity or facilitating market incentives for farmers. To improve market demand, there is a need to create awareness, particularly among mothers and youth, about the nutritional value of underutilized crops. This awareness may be created through measures like media campaigns and course content in schools (Adhikari et al. 2017). Value chains for underutilized crops also need to be developed and strengthened so as to make them commercial products that can be traded not only on the local market, but also internationally (Chivenge et al. 2015).