The Importance of Food Diversity

There are an estimated 30,000 edible plants growing on the planet today. About fifty of those crops deliver 90% of the world’s calories. What’s happening to the other 29,950 we could be eating? Food biodiversity is on the decline, and so is our health and the health of the Earth’s ecosystems. So what can you do?

First, let’s lay the foundation. Biodiversity is the variability among living organisms from all sources. It’s the product of many million of years of evolution through processes such as genetic mutation and natural selection. Ecosystems with more biodiversity are more resilient to all of the various natural activities on Earth, such as unique climates and diseases. There is so much to talk about in the world of biodiversity but this post will focus specifically on plants grown for food. Check back for future posts for more in-depth looks at other aspects of the topic! When you eat a vegetable, the nutrients you get from it are from the unique genetic variations that evolved to help enable the plant to survive better. Eating a locally-grown tomato bred for nutritional value is much better for you than buying one from the store. Vegetable varietals aren’t all created equal!

The ecosystem services shared with us through biodiversity are intimately linked to human well-being. We depend on the Earth’s ecosystems for every basic need. A study by PNAS notes that “it is a ‘shared axiom’ of ecology and nutrition that diversity enhances health” - essentially, growing more crop varieties is better for the Earth and better for the living creatures that inhabit it. The reverse is also true. Less biodiversity means fewer food options, crops that are more vulnerable to diseases, and upsetting the world’s natural ecosystems and their ability to regenerate themselves. The variety in our global diet is being diminished and we face an uncertain food future.

Across the globe our diets are converging at an alarming rate and local foods are being replaced by those that are cheaper and easier to produce. By focusing on only the “Big 4” (wheat, corn, soybean, and sunflower), we’re putting more and more local crops and healthier varietals at risk of extinction. The nature of these changes, good or bad, is within the power of us to influence. Here’s where you can help!

On a large scale, luckily, some smart people are working on this issue. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, describes a new paradigm: “a reformulated global food system in which thriving local networks of agro-ecological farms, such as organic, support thriving local communities. These farms are fairer, more ecologically friendly, and more sustainable. They also provide for healthier diets – because they are more diverse. Diversity lends resilience to a food system. By [eating with the seasons] and focusing our diet on local variety, by avoiding processed foods and eating less but better meat, and by supporting those farmers who support a rich and varied wildlife”, we can all help to bring de Schutter’s vision to reality.

If you are asking what else you can do, the answer is even simpler: plant some food! Growing your own food ensures quality and freshness, on top of benefiting your ecosystem’s biodiversity. Have you seen some of the crazy varieties you can grow? There are tie-dye tomatoes and yellow zucchinis and a whole world of strange and delicious food all available as starts and seeds at your local nursery or seed store. If you’re excited to help, but don’t have the time or knowledge to get your garden started, we can help. Contact us to get growing!

Thanks to Baker Creek for the beautiful photos!