A recently released a book titled Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity that points out the pace of loss in biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems—along with emerging health issues related to diet and nutrition, particularly diabetes and cardiovascular disease—make it imperative that the world address current food systems and agricultural practices.
The book was published by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization and Biodiversity International.
"While over 900 million people in the world suffer from hunger, even more–about 1.5 billion–are overweight or obese, and an estimated 2 billion suffer from micronutrient malnutrition including vitamin A, iron, or iodine deficiency," says Barbara Burlingame, principal officer of FAO’s Nutrition and Consumer Protection Division.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, and by some definitions can also include bioactive non-nutrients (e.g., polyphenols), Burlingame says. "In the past, including during the Green Revolution, there was the widespread belief that if dietary energy requirements were met—and therefore people were not hungry—the micronutrient requirements would also be met. We know this is not true – hence the term ‘hidden hunger,’ which is low intake of vitamins and minerals even when the energy content of the diet (or caloric intake) was adequate.
Aside from iodine and vitamin D, which are special cases, the key micronutrients deficiencies mentioned are vitamin A, iron, and zinc." A varied diet will usually protect a person against micronutrient malnutrition, she adds.
The book notes that high-input industrial agriculture and the ability to transport food products long distances have made refined carbohydrates and fats affordable and available worldwide. As a result, diets have become more simplified, relying on a limited number of energy-rich foods that lack nutrient quality and have heavy carbon and water footprints. For instance, Burlingame says that rain-fed rice production has a lower carbon and water-use footprint than irrigated, intensive rice systems.
The book notes that currently corn, wheat, and rice provide 60 percent of the world’s dietary energy from plant-based foods at the global level, and large numbers of people are abandoning traditional plant-based foods for meat, dairy products, fats, and sugar.
"This is a problem for several reasons, one important reason being that when diets are heavily reliant on single-starch staples, which are often highly refined, micronutrient intakes are usually poor," says Burlingame. "High agriculture chemical inputs are required for these intensive cropping systems, disrupting normal ecosystems processes. In addition, these crops are usually mono-varietal, and thus the biodiversity within a genus or species declines."
The book notes that intensive agricultural is also playing a role in the world’s shrinking genetic diversity of both plants and animals. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 17,291 out of 47,677 species—about 36 percent—worldwide are threatened with extinction.
"There is an urgent need to change the paradigm of agricultural production in order to integrate the dimension of nutritional quality in our decisions as to what to produce and where," says Emile Frison, director general of Rome-based Bioversity International. "This requires us to move beyond the major staples and to look at the many hundreds and thousands of neglected and underutilized plant and animal species that mean the difference between an unsustainable and a sustainable diet."