Learn how a lack of agricultural biodiversity is causing dietary issues, and threatens the disappearance of our favorite foods.
"Eating,” author, farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry says, “is an agricultural act.” Food connects us to all living things, and to the lineage of who we are and where we come from. It isn’t nameless farmers in fields and workers in factories who bring us our food; it’s people like us. People who dedicate their lives to creating something that we take into our bodies. They transform nature into culture, as what they touch becomes part of us. This intimacy is astonishing and humbling.
We treat our food system as an abstract thing; however, it’s a dynamic entity made up of these relationships. I have learned, by traveling to the places where some of our favorite foods and drinks began, that our food is precious.
I had no idea how hard it was to get a coffee bean from a forest in Ethiopia to my local café, or how much work and care went into making a premium bar of chocolate or a hearty loaf of bread. I had no idea how endangered the best, most delicious versions of these things are. Understanding what it takes to sustain and save those foods — in farms, on our plates and in life — lies in the recognition that how we eat is a reflection of how we live. By sustaining agricultural biodiversity, we sustain ourselves.
“Eating with the fullest pleasure — pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance,” Berry adds, “is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”
For millennia, we’ve made decisions about what to grow or not grow — and what to eat or not eat. That’s what agriculture is: a series of decisions we, and our ancestors, have made about what we want our food and food system to look and taste like. But our ability to make these decisions — and indulge in our pleasures — is being compromised in ways that are unprecedented.
While some places in the world are experiencing an increase of diversity in certain parts of their diet, the general trend is the same one we see in phones and fashion: standardization. Every place looks and tastes more similar — and the country that sets this trend is America. The refined carbohydrates, animal proteins and added fats and sugars that make up the majority of our diets have also become the template diet for the world.
I know it feels counterintuitive to contemplate loss, particularly against the backdrop of floor-to-ceiling aisles in supersized supermarkets. In a Walmart (the No. 1 grocery chain in the United Staes) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I counted 153 flavors of ice cream and eight brands of yogurt. But then I looked further. The choices are superficial — primarily in flavor and secondarily in brand, most of which are owned by the same company. At least 90 percent of all containers of yogurt, milk and ice cream made in the U.S. are made with milk from one breed of cow, the Holstein-Friesian, known as the highest-producing dairy animal in the world.
This increase in sameness is what conservationist Colin Khoury and co-authors of the most comprehensive study to date on the diversity (and lack thereof) of our food supply call our “global standard diet.” The researchers analyzed 50 years of data on major crops eaten by 98 percent of the population. They found diets around the world have expanded in terms of amount, calories, fat and protein, with the greatest number of our calories now coming from energy-dense foods such as wheat and potatoes.
But this availability obscures the more challenging truth that Khoury and his colleagues discovered: Globally, foods have become more alike and less diverse. As the amount of food around the world has shrunk to just a handful of crops, regional and local crops have become scarce or disappeared altogether. Wheat, rice and corn, plus palm oil and soybeans, are what we all eat now — the same type and the same amount.
Yes, this increase in carbs, fats and proteins has helped feed hungry people, but on a global scale it’s also increased our chances of becoming what author Raj Patel calls “stuffed and starved.” The world overconsumes energy-dense foods but eats fewer foods rich in micronutrients (the small but essential vitamins and minerals we need for healthy metabolism, growth and physical development). While 795 million people go hungry, more than 2 billion people are overweight or obese. And both groups suffer from micronutrient malnutrition.
The global standard diet is changing the biodiversity of nearly every ecosystem, including the 100 trillion bacteria that live in our guts, part of what’s known as our microbiome. The foods and drinks we consume add to or, increasingly, detract from the diversity of our intestinal flora and have implications for how healthy or unhealthy we are over the long term.
The factors that contribute to this change are complex and interconnected, but the main reason for this shift is that we’ve replaced the diversity of foods we used to eat with monodiets of megacrops, funneling resources and energy into the cultivation of megafields of cereals, soy and palm oil. As farmers from all over the world move toward growing genetically uniform, high-yielding crops, local varieties dwindle or disappear. This is why we’re now facing one of the most radical shifts we’ve ever seen in what and how we eat — and in what we’ll have the ability to eat in the future.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 95 percent of the world’s calories now come from 30 species. Of the roughly 30,000 edible plant species, we cultivate about 150. And of the more than 30 birds and mammals we’ve domesticated for food, only 14 animals provide 90 percent of the food we get from livestock. The loss is staggering: Three-fourths of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. While these numbers are rough estimates, they speak to a startling trend: We rely on fewer species and varieties for food and drink — a treacherous way to sustain what we need to survive. It’s dangerous for the same reason investment experts tell us to diversify our financial holdings: Putting all our eggs in one basket (figuratively or literally) increases risk.
The loss of agrobiodiversity has and will transform not only what and how we eat but who will have the resources to eat at all. Because behind every one of these foods and drinks are the people who rely on them for their livelihoods — from field hands and factory workers to grocery clerks and chefs.
How do we feed one another? And how will we feed one another? It’s impossible to escape the headlines and news reports expressing concern about future food security for our growing population. But 805 million people are hungry today. This includes more than one in five American households with children that are food-insecure. A statistic that, when broken down by race and ethnicity, becomes even more heartbreaking: Almost 40 percent of African-American kids and 30 percent of Latino-American children are undernourished.
For the past 20 years, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world produces more than one and a half times enough food to feed everyone on the planet, which is also enough to feed the population of 9.6 billion we anticipate by 2050.
This matters because a lot of the changes we see in food and agriculture have been made in the name of feeding hungry people. But the challenge isn’t simply an issue of production; it’s one of access. Food and the resources required to buy food aren’t efficiently or equally distributed. That’s why the hungriest people in the world are smallholder farmers — the more than 500 million people responsible for feeding the majority of the world’s population. The people who grow food are too poor to buy it.
The majority of these farmers are women, most of whom live in extreme poverty, which is why they are moving to cities and entering the formal workforce in higher numbers. (Women have always worked, but they aren’t always recognized or paid for it.) Add to this fewer home gardens; less time to grow food; the exponential growth of supermarkets and fast food joints; and a bit more money with which to buy cheap, processed food. You’ve now got a recipe for the global standard diet.
Soon after I started researching, I saw a bumper sticker that read “Extinct is Forever.” It’s true. It’s what we face every time we shrink agrobiodiversity from thousands of varieties down to a handful. We stop growing it, we stop eating it and, slowly, it disappears. The loss of genetics is accompanied by the loss of knowledge on how to grow foods and how to prepare and eat them. It’s the cultural erosion that accompanies the genetic one: Our culinary traditions are going extinct, too.
Fortunately, a lot of these changes have occurred in the last few decades, which means they can change again. That is, of course, as long as we sustain the diversity found in the wild, on farms and in stored collections that contain the traits we might need: immunity to a disease, greater adaptation to a changing climate, the possibility of higher yields or greater nutritional value — and delicious taste.
But in order to support this diversity and facilitate change, we have to start thinking differently about the food in our fields and on our plates, and be more discriminating about its sources. “How do we buck the system just a little bit?” Khoury asks. “Think of oil. We’re definitely eating more of it: soybean oil, then palm oil — much more than other oils around the world. Although it isn’t immediately obvious that eating olive oil would be radical, in the big picture that’s exactly what it is. Eating olive oil is now a radical act. Eating anything that’s not rice, wheat, corn, soy or palm oil is radical.”
The revolution starts here, on our plates, by looking at the pillars of our own diets and by making simple changes. The way to take back this power for ourselves is to understand why we eat what we eat. And to understand what we’re losing — so we know what to reclaim.
1. Look at the ingredients on your favorite foods and purchase outside of the “global standard diet” trajectory of wheat, rice, corn, soybean and palm oil.
2. Get outside your comfort zone and cook unfamiliar varieties of foods and a range of types of foods. Curiosity is a key part of the conservation of diverse crops and breeds. A delightful starting place is Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a listing of foods that celebrate a wide range of biological, cultural and culinary traditions.
3. Frequent farmers markets and support farmers growing heirloom varieties. In produce, start with fruits and vegetables in colors and shapes different than the uniform ones on grocery store shelves. With meat, eggs and dairy, ask where and how livestock was raised. (Rearing practices impact soil diversity and diversity in breeds.)
4. Support organizations that are sustaining diversity throughout the food chain: Bioversity International aims to support smallholder farmers in the developing world through sustainable agriculture and conservation. The Center for Food Safety promotes food systems that are safe, sustainable and environmentally sound. The Christensen Fund is dedicated to promoting biological and cultural diversity, particularly agrobiodiversity and food sovereignty, providing resources for indigenous and local farming communities to protect and enhance local food systems. Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary uses sustainable beekeeping methods to restore the health and vitality of honeybees. Wild Oceans emphasizes conservation of the ocean’s top predators. La Via Campesina focuses on small- and medium-scale agricultural producers, defending the rights of farmers to grow culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods.
5. Join a local CSA and purchase a farm share that provides farmers funding before the growing season. It helps ensure a more stable income and allows farmers to cultivate lesser-known varieties.
6. Explore craft and specialty foods. This might mean asking a local roaster about a coffee origin or choosing a craft beer over, say, a Bud Light. All foods can exhibit a taste of place. Support makers who highlight those unique characteristics and take time to savor the array of flavors these foods offer. (The tasting guides in Bread, Wine, Chocolate are designed to help.)
7. Grow your own. Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, among others, offer extensive catalogues of heirloom varieties that will help you get started. Once you do, save seeds and share or swap them with other area gardeners.