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What is Food Biodiversity and Why Does It Matter?

Nov. 7, 2013

By Gary Paul Nabhan, Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems and founder of Renewing America’s Food Traditions

Excerpted from Conservation You Can Taste: Best Practices in Heritage Food Recovery and Successes in Restoring Agricultural Biodiversity over the Last Quarter Century

Although the term biodiversity was not even coined until 1985, the more particular term food biodiversity now helps us describe the cornucopia of distinctive kinds of fruits, nuts, vegetables, tubers, greens, herbs and oilseeds that we intuitively associate with flavor, nutrition, food security, abundance and health.

Conservation You Can TasteIn a broad sense, the actual number of food varieties that we eat is but a fraction of the total agricultural biodiversity on farms and ranches required to assure that food crops and livestock are fed, protected from winds or floods, and supplied with adequate water, forage, nutrients, pollinators and other beneficial insects to assure a harvest.

Close to 7,000 species of plants have been cultivated as food crops worldwide, and 200 or so species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates have been raised on farms and ranches. However, just 103 crop plants and 7 livestock species feed the world today, providing the majority of calories and protein consumed in the globalized economy.

Since 1973, when the first major study of the genetic vulnerability of our global food supply was published, this narrow genetic base for our food supply has alarmed many scientists and food security planners, especially as another 100,000 kinds of plants and animals have disappeared from our planet over the last four decades.

But what most global surveys have failed to take into account is the tremendous momentum that has been made at the grassroots level in conserving and revitalizing the uses of rare food plant and animal varieties:

  • In 1985, members of the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) offered to one another the seeds, tubers and cuttings of about 5,000 distinctly listed varieties of food plants. By 1999, the number of unique food plant listings offered for exchange among SSE members broke 20,000—a fourfold increase in less than a decade and a half.
  • Over roughly the same time period, the number of cultivated plant varieties of vegetables, grains, legumes and tubers offered in American seed catalogs has increased from 4,989 to well over 8,500 distinctive varieties – this amounts to an average increase of 31% in heirloom food plant varieties becoming available to American gardeners.

Similar trends are occurring across fruit and nut trees, and berry vines from nurseries, and in the registries of livestock breeds.

All in all, we now have over 628 species of cultivated food plants and 14 species of large livestock and poultry. That is in addition to over 4,000 wild plants and perhaps 250 wild animal species that have historically been used as food on the American continent, many of which grow in open spaces on farms and ranches, or in the ponds, streams or rivers that run through them.

Obviously, not many of us will ever have the chance to taste even a fraction of the five thousand species that can be used as food on this continent, so...

Why do they matter?

Here are just a few of the reasons that they will matter in achieving food security that nourishes our poor, elderly and children, and sustains our long-term food productivity:

  • Maintaining a diversity of plants and animals on the land and in our waters may be one of the best strategies we have to buffer ourselves from climate uncertainty.
  • Harboring biodiversity on farms allows these plants and animals to provide “ecosystem services” which stabilize yields and reduce required inputs, over and above the calories they produce.
  • A neglected “food rule” to guide our healthy eating patterns is that eating a diversity of varieties of the same foodstuff – apples or salad greens – provides us with a greater diversity of nutrients, probiotics, textures and flavors to keep us fully nourished and protected from disease.

Perhaps the conservation of flavor options and the very pleasure of eating are the least-discussed among all the reasons for attempting to sustain food biodiversity. The case studies featured throughout the Conservation You Can Taste report remind us that when we conserve food diversity, we are not just saving genes, breeds or species. We are saving taste, culture and livelihoods.

Read the full report.

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