Over the centuries, since agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago in the Middle-East, man has had a growing variety of cereals, vegetables, meats and milks to feed on. As agricultural techniques developed, and as expeditions overseas constantly brought back new products, the human diet became more and more diversified. We have reached the point today where we possess enough knowledge and have access to enough diversity to establish what an ideal diet would be. Yet, we tend to eat more and more of the same things and neglect some crops because they are less profitable or have a lower yield. The biodiversity of our resources is being impoverished, by choice, for our tastes or by obligation. How does this impact the way we feed the world and the effects of our agriculture on the environment? What should be done about it?
At global level, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has identified 3,189 types of foods that can be taken into account as nutritional indicators of biodiversity. But if we focus on major dietary trends, mankind essentially feeds on animal proteins (meat, fish, eggs and milk), on vegetables and on cereals. Cereals account for 45% of the world’s protein supplies, but wheat, corn and rice are the most frequently consumed, by far – followed by sorgho, very popular in Africa, and barley, which is mainly used to brew beers or other alcoholic beverages. Although some other cereals, like quinoa, have recently been “discovered” by the Western world, we tend to make massive use of the same five.
As far as meat is concerned, although there are significant variations across the globe – with countries like India almost vegetarian while others like the USA are huge meat-eaters and with religions and cultures prohibiting the consumption of some animals – we tend to mainly eat pork (36.9% of world production), poultry (28.5%) and beef (22.3%). However, fish is practically the only source of animal protein in the diets of 500 million people.
Cow’s is by far the most consumed milk, followed by goat’s and ewe’s milk. More variety can actually be seen in vegetables, according to crops, weather, agricultural techniques, etc. But potatoes do feed most of the world: their production is three times that of tomatoes, the second most-consumed “vegetable” across the world. We also eat a lot of cabbage, manioc, onion, cucumber, aubergine and carrot.
Food consumption has long been related to local conditions, tastes and constraints. With the development of transportation and of conservation techniques, food exchanges have developed dramatically and the idea of seasonality has become less significant – at least in the developed world. At the same time, throughout the 20th century, new production methods favoured products that are easy to standardise for mass production, neglecting other species and varieties. Today, our tastes for exotic food or for vegetables out of season can easily be satisfied, which surprisingly has led the range of foods we eat to shrink. It is as if globalisation has also affected to our palates, making us all like and eat the same things. We eat more and more quinoa (the “rice” of Southern America), but we have completely forgotten about old-fashioned vegetables that could grow very well in our latitudes. The sale of some of these is even prohibited: there are, in France, 280 identified types of forgotten vegetable that cannot be sold. But many of them are also protected by preservation networks, in order to maintain and regenerate the genetic resources necessary to create new varieties, which will be more resistant to diseases, for instance. For cereals, there is actually a “World Bank” that gathers and preserves the seeds of all varieties that are suitable for human consumption, in order to constitute a collective heritage and avoid leaving the plants to be monopolised exclusively by multinational companies.
The problem is also the solution
This demonstrates very well how important it is to preserve the biodiversity of our food resources. In fact, in that respect as in many others, agriculture is both the problem and the solution. It is because of our farming and fishing practices that biodiversity has suffered so greatly. Firstly, because we chose to abandon some varieties for the sake of productivity – or for cultural reasons, but that is a separate issue. Secondly, and more importantly, because we have seriously impaired the biodiversity of the ecosystems that surround us, for the honourable purpose of feeding the world. According to the Zoological Society of London and the WWF, over a quarter of known animal and plant varieties disappeared between 1975 and 2005. The UICN (International Union for Nature Conservation) lists over 3,600 plants and 3,500 vertebrate species that are threatened. And this can mainly be attributed to agriculture and over-fishing. Because they upset, modify or actually eliminate natural habitats, because they take out more individuals than a species is capable of replacing naturally, these practices contribute to a worrying impoverishment of ecosystems, and thus of our food resources. As the FAO and the Platform on Agrobiodiversity Research write in a joint abstract of a workshop held on “Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture” in 2010,
biodiversity underpins food security, sustainable livelihoods, ecosystem resilience, coping strategies for climate change, adequate nutritional requirements, insurance for the future and the management of biological processes needed for sustainable agricultural production.
As a result, they advise that “agricultural production systems focus more on the effective conservation and management of biodiversity and ecosystem services in order to address the twin objectives of environmental sustainability and food security.” Consequently, agriculture is also the solution to the biodiversity issue: as it constitutes the problem, it has the power to change things. Several times on down to Earth we have addressed integrated farming, urban food, water preservation and more generally sustainability in farming, trying to show how agriculture can feed the world and protect the environment. All these issues are linked, and they all add up to this: to combat ever-eroding biodiversity, agriculture must specifically put biodiversity at the core of its systems. This means, firstly, reviving forgotten products (vegetables and cereals) that are more suited to local weather conditions. Secondly, and this also concerns animal farming, it means switching from intensive to integrated farming as much as possible, and stopping over-exploiting resources. On a more general scale, lastly it means taking into account the impact on surrounding ecosystems (particularly through climate change), because if they are damaged there will be a knock-on effect on the stability of resources. As the FAO and the PAR sum up, “if loss of biodiversity (including agricultural biodiversity) has been a feature of agricultural intensification, increased use of biodiversity is necessary to improve sustainability and to cope with climate change.” Who knows, we may soon eat a lot more Jerusalem artichoke, parsnip and swede, drink mare and reindeer milk and eat… less meat. And declare insects delicious?
(Photo from http://jessicarath.com/)