While over 1 billion people are overweight and obese around the world, an estimated 868 million are undernourished. This paradox is explored in a new book, Diversifying Food and Diets, co-edited by Professor Danny Hunter who is an Adjunct Lecturer in Botany and Plant Science (BPS) at NUI Galway.
The book explores the concept of agricultural biodiversity, in the context of the challenge of under-nutrition in many parts of the developing world and unhealthy diets in developed countries.
Agricultural biodiversity has a key role to play in food and nutritional security, according the book’s authors. Such biodiversity can be a safeguard against hunger, as well as a source of nutrients for improved dietary diversity and quality. It can also strengthen local food systems and environmental sustainability.
Currently, 195 million children around the world, under the age of five, are stunted from malnutrition. Meanwhile, in developed countries, obesity has been linked to the rise of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. “It’s a question not only of the quantities of food people are eating but also the quality of that food,” explains Professor Hunter.
Professor Hunter is the Theme Leader for Agrobiodiversity in the NUI Galway Plant and AgriBiosciences Research Centre (PABC). He says: “It is essential to understand how the global agricultural system and the benefits derived from agricultural biodiversity influence the drivers of global dietary consumption patterns, nutrition and health status, in particular in the developing world. The lack of diversity is shown to be a crucial issue, particularly in the developing world where diets consist mainly of starchy staples with less access to nutrient-rich sources of food such as animal proteins, fruits and vegetables.”
He adds: “As this book highlights, local biodiversity has the potential for contributing to food security and nutrition, as well as for enhancing adaptation to global climate change. Some of these species are highly nutritious and have multiple uses.”
Diversifying Food and Diets uses examples and case studies from around the globe to explore strategies for improving nutrition and diets, and identifies gaps in current knowledge that need to be addressed to better promote agricultural biodiversity. Case studies include a project in India which promotes nutritious native millets, efforts to identify and develop nutritionally rich indigenous vegetables and fruit trees in sub-Saharan Africa, and a UK-based community group’s urban gardening approach.
The Head of the Plant and AgriBiosciences Centre at NUI Galway, Professor Charles Spillane highlighted that: “This book makes a valuable and timely contribution to efforts to improve public health through dietary and nutritional interventions. As all of the foods that we eat are either directly or indirectly derived from plants, the health status of millions of people in both developed and developing countries could be improved through improved access to a wider diversity of nutritious plant-based foods. Key challenges for both mitigation and adaptation strategies regarding adverse climate change impacts will be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture while making agricultural systems more resilient. The development of low-environmental footprint crop systems which can maintain prodictivity and harness benefits of agricultural biodiversity remains a major challenge facing humanity.”
Professor Hunter emphasised that while the book aimed to highlight some of the available options for improving the use of agricultural biodiversity, there was no silver bullet for the serious challenges facing the global population in the production, distribution and healthy consumption of food. “People need to consider ways of diversifying and improving their diets, which really does require a major transformation of the global food system. This will become an even greater challenge with the global population expected to reach around nine billion by 2050.”