What is biodiverse food?

Ann Tutwiler of Bioversity International tells us why in the 21st century, we need biodiverse food. And she tells us what that could mean.

Ms Tutwiler doesn’t mince her words, saying that a need for dramatically increased food production is ‘an article of faith in the agriculture community.’ That ‘article of faith’ came from the United Nations (UN)’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In 2012 FAO predicted that by the middle of this century, the world’s farmers will need to produce 60% more than they produced in 2005.

A neat soundbite but reality’s not so neat. Food isn’t just about full stomachs. Thanks to Ms Tutwiler’s lead I’ve become aware of the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity. The UN is party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which aims for the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Grand politics like this are important. But what does biodiversity mean on the land, in the water? What does biodiversity mean on the fork, on the chopsticks, in the spoon?

Ms Tutwiler says that we’re not looking for a repeat of the mid-20th century Green Revolution. ‘[I]t matters both how we produce more food and where we produce it as well as how we market and consume it—all under changing climatic conditions.’ She agrees with Monkombu Swaminathan (‘Father of the Green Revolution in India’) who calls for an ‘ever-green revolution’ with focus on the ‘forgotten crops’.

We need to look past the Big Three grains which provide most people’s staple food. Across the world, Ms Tutwiler reminds us, half the calories in people’s diets come from maize (corn, Zea mays), rice (Oryza sativa) and wheat (Triticum spp.) Each of those is a cereal. A cultivated grass.

Gramene shows us science about edible grasses, grasses sown on farms and in gardens, and grasses which haven’t yet been domesticated. Look there if you want to know about the Big Three and also about barley (Hordeum vulgare), foxtail millet (Setaria italica, formerly called Panicum italicum L.), oats (Avena sativa), pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), rye (Secale cereale), sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), and true wild rice (Zizania palustris).

That list includes only two millets (foxtail and pearl) but there are many others too. My fellow bloggers at Millets tell us what’s great about these grains. They grow well in drylands, they’re digestible, nutritious and tasty.

And that’s before you mention other sources of complex carbohydrates. Many people’s staple food is potato (Solanum tuberosum), cassava (manioc, tapioca, Manihot esculenta) or plantain (Musa paradisiaca).

Tim Lang at the Guardian urges us towards a 21st century approach to feeding the world. ‘To the west [call us the rich, developed countries if you prefer], the great success of the food story in the second half of the 20th century was lower prices… at a cost to the developing countries dependent on exports. Their purchasing power declined while ours went up… dire environmental costs: biodiversity loss, pollution, soil damage and water stress.’

Mr Lang explains that rising oil prices drove rising food prices. ‘Oxfam prophesises that food prices will double by 2030. That would take the average British shopping basket to around 20% of disposable income. But to the poorest of the world, it would mean almost all income going on food.’

The answer isn’t huge supermarkets, says Mr Lang. ‘The 20th century squandered scientific possibilities. It created the fiction that ever more food can be produced by tapping oil, throwing fertiliser at seeds, spraying endless water and treating the soil as blotting paper, a neutral medium. We now know how fragile that mix is, and how fragile the Earth’s crust and biology are too. Slowly, some of the institutions created over the last 60 years are recognising that political leadership and redirection are needed.’

Huge corporations, whether supermarkets or chemical and biotech giants, may not hold the keys to feeding people. That brings me back to Ms Tutwiler’s emphasis on biodiverse food. ‘During the Green Revolution, agricultural biodiversity was seen as an important source of genetic material that could provide important traits… But the role of agricultural biodiversity in farming systems was often overlooked—and was even sometimes seen as part of the problem.’

That approach isn’t so relevant now, says Ms Tutwiler. She reminds us that in the long term, biodiverse farming can provide higher yields and more stability to economic and climate changes. She calls for genetically diverse crops and praises the world’s small farmers who already grow those crops. Smallholders ‘are the custodians of biodiversity.’ But their knowledge is too often ignored.

Ms Tutwiler says that agricultural research needs public-private partnerships now. Through those partnerships, ‘private and public sector research can work in tandem to deliver on shared goals.’ She tells us of projects involving quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), various crops known as ‘small millets’, and cacao (Theobroma cacao). She doesn’t mention teff (Eragrostis tef) but she certainly could have done.

This post has taken several weeks to write, but that’s the point isn’t it? Biodiversity doesn’t fit into neat summaries. Nor should food.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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3 Responses to What is biodiverse food?

  1. EqFe says:

    I love this approach, but what worries me is that your whole summary might have been written, at least the general ideas, by J.I Rodale 50 years ago. I often wonder if humanity will ever really learn this lesson.

    I also wonder how many of the people who preach GMO\Chemical Farming\science over Organic etc. Really eat a GMO free organic diet themselves. I know that our President does.

  2. EqFe says:

    He’s at the low end of the 1%. It’s his wife who believes in healthy eating, and I don’t think that she’s convinced him.

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