BIODIVERSITY AND NUTRITION

by Carmen Miletta Cossa

“Biodiversity is essential for food security and nutrition. Thousands of interconnected species make up a vital web of biodiversity within the ecosystems upon which global food production depends”[1].

Since the start of domesticating plants and animals, agricultural biodiversity has played an important role in giving nutritional and healthy food and also livelihood security all over the world. Biodiversity was valued and utilized, and traditional knowledge and practices ensured the conservation and sustainable use of food within healthy ecosystems.

Biodiversity is a key source of food diversity and provides natural richness of nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats, vitamins and minerals.

It has been proved by several studies that biodiversity plays a key role in ensuring dietary diversity because nutrient composition among different varieties, cultivars and breeds of the same food can differ dramatically.

For example, sweet potato cultivars can differ in their carotenoid content by a factor of 200 or more; protein content of rice varieties can range from 5 percent to 14 percent by weight; provitamin-Acarotenoid content of bananas can be less than 1 µg[2] /100 g for some cultivars to as high as 8,500 µg/100 g for other cultivars [3].

This means that intake of one variety rather than another can make a big difference between micronutrient deficiency and micronutrient sufficiency.

For example, if we take into consideration rural populations that mostly rely on wild or farmed fish or other animals that live in aquatic ecosystems, having access to a big variety of aquatic animal species makes a substantial contribution to nutrition as calcium and vitamin A.

Wild biodiversity has also an important role in contributing to food nutrition in many agroecosystems worldwide. Wild foods include varied forms of both plant and animal products, ranging from fruits, leafy vegetables, woody foliage, bulbs and tubers, cereals and grains, nuts and kernels, mushrooms, insects, honey, bird eggs, birds, fish and shellfish. These various wild foods invariably add diversity to human diets.

Wild foods are an essential and preferred dietary component in both rural and urban households in many parts of the world.  A report shows that approximately one billion people around the world consume wild foods, but it is likely to be much higher.[4]

It is reported that not only rural communities eat wild foods. There are many wild foods in large urban markets. From Turkey to Brazil, Italy and China, and others.

It has been demonstrated that wild food species are much richer in vitamins, micronutrients or proteins than many conventional domesticated species that dominate agricultural or home-garden production[5].

Research showed the higher carotenoid levels of wild native Brazilian leafy green vegetables compared to commercially produced leafy vegetables[6]. Protein levels in edible insects such as mopane worms (Imbresia belina) are approximately double those in beef (Greyling and Potgieter 2004).

The same applies to mushrooms, such as Psathyrella atroumbonata, which has 77% more protein than beef (Barany et al. 2004). Vitamin C levels in baobab fruits (Adansonia digitata) are also six times higher than oranges (Fentahun and Hager 2009); Amaranthus, a widely used green leafy vegetable, has 200 times more vitamin A and ten times more iron than the same-sized portion of cabbage (McGarry and Shackleton 2009b)[7].

A diverse diet should contain many different foods consumed in sufficient amounts. A healthy human diet is composed of many hundreds of beneficial bioactive components, a small subset of which have been characterized and identified as nutrients. A varied diet is the only way to ensure adequate intakes of these nutrients and related compounds.

[1] http://www.fao.org/biodiversity/en/
[2] µg :Abbreviation for microgram.
[3] FAO Biodiversity and nutrition: A Common path - paper
[4] Aberoumand (2009)
[5] Yang and Keding 2009; Bharucha and Pretty 2010
[6] Kobori and Rodriguez-Amaya (2008)
[7] Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health - (Romanelli, C. et al.) 2015