The Spice of Life: the fundamental role of diversity on the farm and on the plate

by Seth Cook

The world is witnessing major shifts in dietary patterns and – in parallel – the threat to agricultural biodiversity. The implications for human health and the resilience of our food systems are significant. Agricultural landscapes are becoming increasingly simplified as the number of crops and crop varieties grown on farms declines. Responding to a variety of pressures, farmers have replaced many time-tested local varieties with a small number of modern ones – a pattern which holds true for both food crops and animal breeds. Coinciding with the threat to agricultural biodiversity has been a trend towards the homogenisation of diets. Today 30 crops supply 95 per cent of the calories that people obtain from food, and only four crops – maize, rice, wheat and potatoes – supply over 60 per cent. This is noteworthy given that over the millennia, humans have domesticated or collected approximately 7,000 species of plants for food. Such heavy reliance on an unprecedented narrow range of crops, crop varieties and animal breeds brings long-term and increasing risks for agricultural production, for biodiversity, for livelihoods, and for nutrition. It also undermines the ability of agriculture to adapt to climate change.

We are producing more food than ever but for citizens across the world, now and in the future, food security is further and further away. High levels of food production are eroding our environment and putting excessive strain on natural resources, including water and land. Meanwhile a global public health crisis threatens as diet-related diseases escalate. All this makes a compelling case for re-examining our food systems.

International Institute For Environment and Development (IIED) and Dutch NGO Hivos are working together to rethink the way we produce and consume food. This means tackling policies that favour big business at the expense of small-scale producers. It means challenging policies that focus on production as the answer to food security, often overlooking the struggles of the rural and urban poor who are continually forced to choose between quality, food safety, convenience and price.

“We recognise people – with their capacity to innovate and power to drive change – must be at the centre of efforts to reshape our failing food systems. Through citizen action we will work with others to influence policy and practices of markets, to convince government actors and international institutions to promote diets that are diverse, greener, healthier, fairer and more sustainable.” This includes you, the farmer, and your community.



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