Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

I want to share some points that are relevant to this discussion from a new paper by Hivos and IIED entitled The spice of life: the fundamental role of diversity on the farm and on the plate (, which focuses on agricultural biodiversity and diverse, high quality diets.

Maintaining agricultural biodiversity is vital in order to meet food and nutrition security and to cope with the challenge of climate change. Improving and diversifying diets is essential to human health and to limiting the spread of non-communicable diseases. Reviving and maintaining diversity on the farm and on the plate requires action on multiple fronts and at multiple scales. At a macro level, promoting diversity entails a shift from industrial agriculture – which relies on monocultures and a small number of crops, crop varieties and animal breeds – to diversified sustainable farming systems. At a national and local scale, it entails raising awareness and stimulating demand for diverse and healthy foods, as markets for diverse crops and animal products need to be supported and expanded. Meanwhile, policies, subsidies, research and extension programmes need to be aligned to support diverse food production and consumption. Finally, the cultural underpinnings of diverse food systems – which are also under threat worldwide – need to be protected and strengthened.

Markets have an important role to play in fostering greater diversity of production and consumption. In developing countries, informal markets are particularly important, and often do a better job than formal markets of linking diverse, affordable foods with consumers. Such markets should be nurtured, to support and improve their operation, rather than trying to stamp them out, as governments often unsuccessfully attempt to do. Barter markets can also provide an important mechanism for poor groups to access diverse nutrients and sustain agrobiodiversity. For instance, a barter market controlled by indigenous women in the Lares area of Cusco province in Peru enables highland and lowland products to be exchanged, enhancing the nutritional security and agrobiodiversity of both regions.

Gastronomic movements around the world have played an increasingly important role in promoting the revival and maintenance of traditional crops and ingredients. For instance, in Bolivia, this has created a small but significant demand for traditional products by chefs, who are working directly with local producers to ensure sustainable processes for the production of local Andean crops. One of the key organisations involved in the Bolivian gastronomic movement is MIGA (Movement of Gastronomic and Food Integration of Bolivia). Since 2012, MIGA has brought together different key actors in the gastronomic food system to enhance the value of Bolivian culinary heritage and promote sustainable economic, social, cultural and environmental processes. MIGA seeks to promote the value of biodiversity represented in local and native products, preserving traditional knowledge, seasonality, as well as traditional ways of consumption.

Carefully targeted procurement programmes (e.g. in schools, university, hospital kitchens and prisons) can be another powerful lever to improve diets and create demand for a more diverse array of crops. In fact, procurement is one of the few mechanisms that can stimulate demand and supply for more diverse, healthy foods in a direct way and at scale. School feeding programmes with the aim of improving children’s nutrition are a good illustration of public procurement. Depending on how such programmes are designed, they can also promote local sourcing and a diversity of foods, thereby creating demand for local crop varieties.

India has the largest school lunch programme in the world, serving 120 million of the country’s poorest children. Biodiversity International, the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation and other organisations have promoted the conservation and use of millets, including in school lunch programmes. The substitution of millets for white rice in school lunches in 12 districts of Central and South India led to a 37% increase in haemoglobin levels in children over a three-month period.