Indigenous leafy vegetables and grains, such as amaranth, provide significant sources of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/NIKOLA HAHN
Placing renewed emphasis on sustaining the natural variety of crops and animals contributing to agriculture, including neglected yet nutritious traditional foods, can improve food security and address growing global concerns over poor nutrition and its negative health effects, officials said at the launch of a new international project at the World Nutrition Rio Congress 2012.
The Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project aims to address the narrowing variety of people's diets, with nutritionally-poor processed foods dominating the dinner table. This trend has led to a raft of health issues worldwide. One third of the world's population suffers from hunger and micronutrient malnutrition, while obesity and diet-related chronic illness have reached critical levels.
The diversity of crops and their wild relatives, trees, animals, microbes and other species contributing to food production — known as agricultural biodiversity — can counter these trends, according to Emile Frison, Director General of Bioversity International, which is coordinating the project to further research and promote the links between biodiversity and good nutrition.
"To meet the challenge of feeding the world population of around nine billion by 2050, we need to consider not only sustainably producing sufficient food but also working towards diversified nutrition, which means providing a healthy diet for all," said Braulio Dias, Executive Secretary, Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). "Agricultural biodiversity plays a central role in meeting this challenge."
The Global Environment Facility (GEF), the world's largest public funder of international environmental projects, is supporting the multi-country project led by Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey. Bioversity International is coordinating the project with implementation support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
"The GEF is making efforts to expand its engagement in the conservation and management of agricultural biodiversity, which provides the mainstay for millions of people worldwide and food security to the world's most vulnerable populations," said Monique Barbut, CEO and Chairperson of the GEF.
In addition to researching biodiversity's role in nutrition, the US $35-million project, supported by the GEF with US$5.5 million and contributions from partner governments and international agencies, aims to provide information on the nutritional and health benefits of traditional food sources to the four partner countries.
The results will enhance the development of policies and regulatory frameworks that promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of often-neglected and forgotten traditional foods, which are often more nutritious and better adapted to local environments, thus having less impact on ecosystems.
"In India, for example, a long series of studies to improve the use of so-called minor millets among very poor farmers has shown multiple beneficial impacts on yields, incomes, profits, the nutritional value of popular snack and breakfast foods and female empowerment, all promoting the likely conservation of these crops and their biological diversity in farmers' fields," Mr. Frison said.
Examples of these foods, some of which have gained global popularity, are:
- Indigenous leafy vegetables such as amaranth leaves, cleome and nightshade, which are now acknowledged as significant sources of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants Lycopene-rich guava varieties, acerola and pitanga. In Brazil, which already has a great deal of biodiversity in its food supply, these former garden fruits are now commercially produced and processed. Another nutrient-rich fruit from Brazil and elsewhere is the popular açaí berry.
- Food condiments and spices, which have recently been reported to have anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic, and anti carcinogenic properties. Spices also contribute to daily intakes of iron, zinc and calcium
- Arugula (or rocket), a nutritious vegetable once collected as a wild food, and quinoa, an extremely nutritious grain-like crop from the Andes, have both found wide-scale acceptance in the grocery aisles and on restaurant tables throughout the world as a healthy and tasty food. Quinoa holds particular promise in that it is highly adaptable to different climatic and geographic conditions. The United Nations has declared 2013 to be the year of the Quinoa.
The project is consistent with the Cross-Cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition, which was adopted by the CBD at the eighth Conference of the Parties in 2006, recognizing the importance of the links between biodiversity, food and nutrition.
For further information on the project please visit Bioversity International.