Why a Diverse Diet Matters (for You and the Planet)

Biodiversity is more than just a buzzword: It’s essential to combatting agricultural blights while providing nutrition and wider ranges of flavor. Searching out wild and heirloom products is about protecting the future of food through respecting the past.
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Dried corn

Heirloom varietals are more nutritiously dense than their modern counterparts.

For those seeking to follow a greener lifestyle, eating for biodiversity is one of the most powerful shifts you can make. Why? “Since the early 1900s, some 75% of the genetic diversity of the foods humans have thrived on for millennia has been lost,” explains Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder and president of Food Tank, an international nonprofit advocating for more sustainable agricultural models. Indeed, the number of foods we rely on for nourishment continues to shrink across the globe: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States (FAO), just three plants account for roughly 48% of all calories consumed.

Standing in the abundance of a modern supermarket, whether perusing the produce aisle or scanning ancient grains in bulk bins, this can seem hard to grasp. But consider that, at the turn of the 19th century, Americans could choose from hundreds of varietals of peaches, most of which are now extinct, writes researcher Jo Robinson in the best-selling Eating on the Wild Side. Thomas Jefferson himself planted 38 different peach varieties in a single orchard at Monticello.

What happened next went something like this: As the West transitioned to a mass-agriculture model, nature’s enormous diversity was distilled down to a handful of high-yield staples like wheat, maize and rice. On-farm biodiversity was winnowed dramatically with practices such as monocropping and pesticides. As agriculture expanded to feed a growing planet, biodiversity diminished. And within species themselves, a handful of varietals were prized for their economies of scale, durability or impressive size, leaving countless others lost. This collapse of choice not only impacted foods in the past (like those peaches), but it continues today: According to the FAO, more than 150 livestock breeds have gone extinct between 2000 and 2018.

While these shifts provided food security and an abundance of predictable calories, the costs to our health and our food system were steep: Starchy staples fueled a surge in chronic diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease as people ate a diet filled with highly refined and processed foods made from these commodity crops. According to Nierenberg, this also led to a dramatic loss of local and regional crops, as well as indigenous staples that were highly nourishing and ideally suited for local conditions.

The result? Not only were we suddenly eating far fewer foods, Robinson writes, but compared to native and wild varietals, these modern varietals had been specifically bred to contain higher amounts of natural sugar and fewer bitter compounds. While they tasted better, it also meant lower levels of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals – the very nutrients that CE eaters are encouraged to seek out today. For example, the ancestor of modern corn had kernels comprised of about 30% protein and 2% sugar; “super sweet” varietals of corn today are as high as 40% sugar.

What Is Biodiversity?

According to the FAO, “biodiversity” is the total sum of plant and animal life, including their genetic diversity and the variety of species across ecosystems. It can be understood as having 3 different levels: 

  1. Species diversity:The number of species on the planet (for example, tuna to trout, barley to wheat).
  2. Genetic diversity: The range of genetic traits found within a species (for example, einkorn, farro and spelt).
  3. Ecosystem diversity: Variation of habitats across a geographic location (such as coral reefs, forests or the human microbiome).Considered together, these make up the the web of life on earth containing both the foods we choose to produce today and in the future.

Why Biodiversity Matters

It’s vital that we not only stem the loss in biodiversity, but that we also try to actively restore it – to our diets, our food system and the planet.

At its core, biodiversity is an essential tool to help boost resilience by making a fuller spectrum of nutrients available, protecting against famine, enhancing food security and increasing the productivity of the food system. As we strive to adapt to a changing climate, biodiversity holds the “ark” of genetic material that can help us potentially harness foods well-suited to minimize risk (such as crop failure from disease or blight brought on by climate change) and ultimately thrive in future conditions while safeguarding the planet’s natural resources.

While it may sound futuristic, the term is already showing up in the dietary guidelines of Norway and Brazil, and organizations such as Food Tank are helping communities rediscover these “forgotten” foods as a way to enhance prosperity and health.

Diversity diet, woman harvesting

Comprising half of the agricultural labor force, women need to have their voices heard for lasting environmental change.

Shop (& Eat!) Smarter: 3 Easy Ways to Make a Difference

  1. Join an organization committed to protecting the world’s biodiversity. Groups such as the Crop Trust, Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, Food Tank, Xerces Society or even your local seed bank all help safeguard biodiversity in an ever-changing world.
  2. Shop cover crops. Cover crops, such as flax, legumes and barley, deliver the benefit of providing nourishing high-quality calories and replenishing and restoring the soil with vital nutrients.
  3. Empower more women and girls globally. A new World Resources Institute Report emphasizes how the empowerment of women and girls is one of the biggest opportunities to slow climate change. They comprise 40 to 50% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries while being disproportionally impacted by the effects of environmental degradation. With many barriers still preventing women from actively engaging in political change, their perspectives are essential to the solution.