The importance of food diversity
Rob Percival - 08 April 2014
Your dinner plate probably doesn’t include goosefoot, hopshoots, vervain, beremeal, medlars, Saltcote Pippin apples or Shetland black potatoes. But it could. These plants were once common British fare, and they grow here still. We simply don’t eat them. Nor do we eat the majority of the 30,000 edible plants growing on the planet today. For the most part, we eat about a dozen.1
We humans are complex creatures; we require between fifty and a hundred different chemical compounds and elements in order to be healthy. While we depend on animal products for a tiny handful of these, the vast majority lie within the roots, shoots and leaves of the thousands of consumable plants that grow around the world. A diet that disregards diversity does so to the detriment of our health.
And to the detriment of global food security
Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a landmark report examining the vulnerability of human and natural systems to climate change. The report highlighted a lack of resilience in the global food system, rooted in a radical decline in food diversity.
Fifty crops now deliver 90% of the world’s calories. It’s little more than half a century since several thousand plants would have done so.2 Across the globe our diets are converging at an alarming rate and local foods are slipping out of usage; varieties of sorghum, millets, rye, cassava and yam are in decline, while the big four – wheat, corn, soybean, sunflower – are taking over.
It is not for the benefit of our health or wellbeing that these crops have come to dominate our diet. It’s because conversion of these crops into meat and processed foods is highly profitable; because these raw materials are cheap, and can be broken down, reformulated, packaged, and sold for profit.
But we pay a high price with our health. A study published earlier this year found that as global food diversity declines, and the consumption of meat and processed foods increases, the direct result is a dramatic increase in diet-related disease, in spiralling incidents of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. "Such diseases," the study says, "are becoming epidemics."
The study notes that it is ‘a shared axiom’ of ecology and nutrition that diversity enhances health. And yet global food diversity is in precipitous decline, our collective diet is being diminished and we face an uncertain food future. The good news is it doesn’t have to be like this.
A new paradigm
Earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, set out his vision for a ‘new paradigm’: a reformulated global food system in which thriving local networks of agro-ecological farms, such as organic, support thriving local communities. These farms, he said, are fairer, more ecologically friendly, and more sustainable. They also provide for healthier diets – because they are more diverse.3
Diversity lends resilience to a food system. By eating in turn with the seasons and focussing our diet on local variety, by avoiding processed foods and eating less but better meat, and by supporting those farmers who support a rich and varied wildlife, we can all help to bring de Schutter’s vision to reality.
The Dittisham Ploughman Plums, the Kentish cobnuts, the Saltcote Pippin apples, the edible wild plants – the local foods growing near you – have a key role to play in the future of food; its time they found their way back onto our dinner plate.
Rob is Policy Officer for Food & Health at the Soil Association. Follow him on twitter.
- The Slow Food Foundation Ark of Taste catalogues local foods from around the world that are at risk of extinction. for data on global food consumption, see the FAOSTAT resource
- The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examines the foods consumed in more than 150 countries over the last half century
- Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Final Report to the UN Human Rights Council, 2014