Why the world needs sustainable diets, and research about them

Diet plays a critical role not only in food and nutrition security, but also influencing the path of agricultural development. With the Convention on Biological Diversity well underway and the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) meeting progressing this week, the relevance of agrobiodiversity remains an important topic of discussion with regards to diet and nutrition. Dr Bruce Cogill, Programme Leader, Nutrition and Marketing of Diversity at Bioversity International provides some insight and shares a recent publication that ties together issues related to environmental health, food security, and nutrition, exploring the concept of a ‘Sustainable Diet.

In August, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Bioversity International released the book, “Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity.”  The timely release of the book has generated a lot of interest in the concept of sustainable diets as countries and individual consumers grapple with the trade-offs of meeting nutritional needs while doing so in a cost effective and environmentally sustainable manner.

What do we mean by Sustainable Diets? They are characterized by low environmental impacts, and contribute to food and nutrition security, and healthy lives for present and future generations. Sustainable diets respect and protect biodiversity and ecosystems. They are culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; and optimize the use of natural and human resources.

The response to our joint appeal for immediate action on sustainable diets has been encouraging including media coverage, blog posts, and attention for the topic from people and policymakers concerned about global food security.

We need to feed 9 billion people by 2050 – without causing additional damage on our planet. Every day that goes by we are witnessing population growth coinciding with more malnourished people and children. The billion or so hungry people today include smallholder farmers often living in environments where large-scale monoculture is not an option nor should it be. What matters is to increase the production of those farmers in a manner that addresses their needs, not only in terms of productivity, but also stability and resilience, while taking into account cultural preferences and avoiding further damage to the environment.

We need a different model of agricultural intensification based on a broader use of agricultural biodiversity and on agroecological principles that allow nature to work with us. Participatory research approaches with farmers – combining modern science with traditional knowledge – are necessary and form the foundation of sustainable diets. It is vital to listen to what the farmer needs, and also to the caregiver and what she needs to feed her children and minimize the use of scarce fuel and water. At Bioversity International, we are studying the use and conservation of agricultural biodiversity for better nutrition, sustainability, productive and resilient ecosystems and livelihoods. Agricultural diversity is linked to dietary diversity, which is linked to dietary quality and nutrition. Fundamental changes in what we eat are happening throughout the world.  The shift to high calorie but low nutrient foods, coupled with lifestyle changes, has changed the health and nutrition in even the poorest countries. Dietary quality is key to reversing these alarming trends.

Through research, Bioversity International is building the case that agricultural biodiversity is a vital resource for a food secure future. There is significant work to be done for us to understand the situation and how we can implement solutions. Bioversity has begun a research agenda to promote the development of new sustainable food production and marketing models.

Here are two examples of work under way:

  • Cost of the Diet Tool: In collaboration with Save the Children UK, Bioversity International is undertaking an innovative global health project in Kenya with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations Initiative. This project is defining the role of wild and underutilized foods in delivering a nutritionally adequate, locally familiar and acceptable diet, while at the same time minimizing the cost to consumers. It will enable programmers and policy makers to develop local food-based menus to prevent malnutrition for mothers and children.
  • Determining the sustainability of diets: Bioversity International, with the support of La Fondation Daniel et Nina Carasso, is undertaking new research describing, measuring, and promoting sustainable diets. The extensive work that has already been undertaken on the health and nutrition benefits of the Mediterranean diet has not yet been developed as a resource for valuing biodiversity and understanding human nutrition. A deeper understanding of the characteristics of a sustainable diet will be valuable in determining indicators and guidelines aimed at measuring the sustainability of diets worldwide and for guiding policies and programmes to improve food and nutrition.

The beneficiaries of our work, including smallholder farmers, pastoralists, forest communities, fisher folk, and food processors and marketers, especially women, are some of the most nutritionally vulnerable in our food system. But these people also supply much of the food and ingredients that are consumed both in the developing and the developed world. A greater emphasis on foods and food systems that embrace the sustainable diet concept will reap nutritional and livelihood benefits for both farmers and consumers across the globe.  We are already seeing efforts on the part of some governments to examine the carbon and water costs of some foods and to adjust pricing policies and dietary guidelines for a more sustainable future.

So eat your greens and enjoy what your farmers, fisher folk, and marketers have provided for us!

For more information:
BioversityNutrition@cgiar.org

Video interview with Dr Bruce Cogill

For those in Rome:
Sustainable diets* for food and nutrition security (side event at Committee on World Food Security), FAO and Bioversity International
Date:  18 October 2012
Time: 08.30-09.30
Venue:  Lebanon Room, FAO Headquarters

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