New global food paradigm advocated

by Josh Sosland
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ROME — A paradigm shift in favor of food biodiversity and away from excessive dependence on crop staples such as wheat, corn and rice is urged in a new book published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Biodiversity International.

The book, “Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity: Directions and Solutions for Policy, Research and Action,” was edited by Barbara Burlingame and Sandro Dernini. The 309-page book is a compilation of papers presented in November 2010 at the International Scientific Symposium titled, “Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets: United Against Hunger,” organized jointly by the F.A.O. and Biodiversity International, which like the U.N. group is based on Rome.

The book criticizes an approach toward world hunger focused excessively on food quantity.

“But the pace of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, coupled with emerging health issues related to diet, make it urgent to address the quality of agriculture and food systems,” the F.A.O. said. “Poor diets are linked to marked increases in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases across the world.”

The F.A.O. noted the three largest grain staples (corn, wheat and rice) account for 60% of caloric intake (though the group fails to estimate whether this figure is up or down from recent and distant historical numbers).

To blame, according to the F.A.O., is “high-input industrial agriculture and long-distance transport,” responsible for making “refined carbohydrates and fats affordable and available across the globe.” As a result, diets have become overly simplified with reliance on a “limited number of energy-rich foods,” the F.A.O. said.

“But such foods lack nutrient quality and have heavy carbon and water footprints,” the group said. “Cheap, energy-dense foods have also come at the cost of flavor, diversity and cultural connection.”

The F.A.O. warned that rising incomes in developing economies has prompted many to abandon “traditional plant-based foods” in favor of diets laden with meat, dairy products, fats and sugar.

“Regardless of the many successes of agriculture in the last three decades, it is clear that food systems, and diets, are not sustainable,” writes Ms. Burlingame, who leads the F.A.O. Nutrition and Consumer Protection Division, in the book’s preface.

“While over 900 million people in the world suffer from hunger, even more — about 1.5 billion — are overweight or obese, and an estimated two billion suffer from micronutrient malnutrition, including vitamin A, iron, or iodine deficiency,” Ms. Burlingame said.

Emile Frison, director general of Rome-based Biodiversity International said the time has come to move beyond the largest grain staples in favor of “the many hundreds and thousands of neglected and underutilized plant and animal species that mean the difference between an unsustainable and a sustainable diet.”

Modern agricultural production is blamed in the book for shrinking plant and animal genetic diversity, with 17,291 species out of 47,677 assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature described as threatened with extinction.

Examples are offered of the successful reinstatement in Kenya of leafy green vegetables that historically had been considered “poor people’s food” in local diets and markets.

“Promotion of the traditional plants, including African night shade, cowpea and pumpkin leaves, spider plant and vine spinach, has increased demand both within households and in the market,” the F.A.O. said. “Small holder farmers are also benefiting.”

Similar actions were recorded in India, the F.A.O. said, with the reintroduction of “healthy cereals” such as foxtail and finger millet “where they had been abandoned due to government policies promoting cassava production for starch.”

In the Andes, efforts are under way to promote native cereals such as quinoa and amaranth. The F.A.O. 2013 has been declared by the United Nations to be the International Year of Quinoa.

“The transition of diets based on energy-dense foods high in fat and sugar is not inevitable,” Mr. Frison said. “We must make a major effort to ensure that all people in the world will not only have adequate food but adequate nutrition to meet their needs.”

Ms. Burlingame advocated “radical transformations” of food systems toward a more efficient use of resources and more efficiency and equity in the consumption of food and towards sustainable diets.

“Sustainable diets can address the consumption of foods with lower water and carbon footprints, promote the use of food biodiversity, including traditional and local foods, with their many nutritionally rich species and varieties,” she said. “They can also contribute to the transition to nutrition-sensitive and climate-smart agriculture and nutrition-driven food systems.”

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