A narrowing of variety in people's diets, with nutritionally-poor processed foods dominating the dinner table, has led to a raft of health issues. One third of the world's population is suffering from hunger and micronutrient malnutrition, while obesity and diet-related chronic illnesses have reached critical levels.
The diversity of crops and their wild relatives, trees, animals, microbes and other species contributing to food production - known as agricultural biodiversity - can counter these trends, said Emile Frison, Director General of Bioversity International, which is coordinating the project to further research and promote the links between biodiversity and good nutrition. "Diversity of diet, founded on diverse farming systems, delivers better nutrition and greater health, with additional benefits for human productivity and livelihoods," Frison said. "Agricultural biodiversity is absolutely essential to cope with the predicted impacts of climate change."
The Global Environment Facility (GEF)'s multi-country project on Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project 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).
FAO's principal nutrition officer Barbara Burlingame notes that dietary energy supply can be met by a few staple crops only, without biodiversity. However, diets that are adequate for human health must be composed of a diversity of foods, with biodiversity being the key. "This project includes a research component that will help to improve the evidence base on the nutritional attributes of food biodiversity, thus linking food and nutrition security with conserving biodiversity through sustainable use."
As well as researching biodiversity's role in nutrition, the US $35-million project, supported by GEF with US$5.5 million, and contributions from partner governments and agencies, aims to provide information on the nutritional and health benefits of traditional food sources to the four partner countries. The results will enhance the development of policies and regulatory frameworks that promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of important and underutilized foods.
"To meet the challenge of feeding the world population of around nine billion by 2050, we need to consider not only sustainably producing sufficient food but also working towards diversified nutrition, which means providing a healthy diet for all," said Braulio Dias, Executive Director, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). "Agricultural biodiversity plays a central role in meeting this challenge."
Neglected or forgotten traditional foods, which are often more nutritious and better adapted to local environments, and which therefore have fewer impacts on ecosystems - are crucial to this bigger picture.
"In India, for example, a long series of studies to improve the use of so-called minor millets among very poor farmers has shown multiple beneficial impacts on yields, incomes, profits, the nutritional value of popular snack and breakfast foods and female empowerment, all promoting the likely conservation of these crops and their biological diversity in farmers' fields," Frison said.
Examples of these foods, some of which have gained global popularity, are:
- Indigenous leafy vegetables such as amaranth leaves, cleome and nightshade, which are now acknowledged as significant sources of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants
- Lycopene-rich guava varieties, acerola and pitanga. In Brazil, which already has a great deal of biodiversity in its food supply, these former garden fruits are now commercially produced and processed. Another nutrient-rich fruit from Brazil and elsewhere is the popular açaí berry
- Food condiments and spices, which have recently been reported to have anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic, and anti carcinogenic properties. Spices also contribute to daily intakes of iron, zinc and calcium
- Arugula (or rocket), a nutritious vegetable once collected as a wild food, and quinoa an extremely nutritious grain-like crop from the Andes, have both found wide-scale acceptance in grocery aisles and on restaurant plates around the world as a healthy, nutritious and tasty food, Quinoa holds particular promise in that it is highly adaptable to different climatic and geographic conditions and 2013 has been cleared year of the Quinoa by the United Nations
The project is consistent with the Cross-Cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition, adopted by the CBD at COP8 (the eighth meeting of the decision-making body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) in 2006 in recognition of the importance of the links between biodiversity, food and nutrition.