Grow, invest, research, read about or eat indigenous food for the International Day for Biological Diversity

Danielle Nierenberg, President of Food Tank, asks that we each mark today's International Day for Biological Diversity by taking at least one action: grow, invest in, research, read about or simply eat delicious indigenous foods.  Read her guest blog

Guest blog for the International Day for Biological Diversity: by Danielle Nierenberg, President, Food Tank

May 22nd is the International Day for Biological Diversity, a time for the world to celebrate what may be the most effective strategy in addressing global hunger and climate change: investing in indigenous agriculture. Indigenous and traditional crops — including finger millet in sub-Saharan Africa, bush tomatoes in Australia, and nopales in Arizona — are often resilient to climate change, highly nutritious and delicious, and can raise farmers’ incomes throughout the world.

Most investment in agriculture is in staple crops — rice, maize, soy, and wheat. These starchy staples are rich in calories, but lack protein and nutrients, filling people up, but not nourishing them. According to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in each decade of this century, climate change could in some regions cause 3-5% decreases in maize and rice, and 10% yield declines in soy. If so, the focus on just a few crops may prove less than strategic — like putting all our eggs in one basket. Greater investment is needed from research institutions and governments as well as better awareness by farmers and eaters on how diverse indigenous foods could help combat climate change and malnutrition, while protecting both environmental and cultural diversity.

Indigenous crops like barley, millet and sorghum can be more resilient to changes in climate than other crops. According to research from the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), indigenous barley strains growing in the same environment yield 25 to 61% more than conventional varieties. In California, where drought is expected to be the worst in 500 years, some farmers are considering growing millet and sorghum because they require less water for production.

In addition to their environmental adaptability, indigenous crops are typically more nutritious than other crops. Finger millet, indigenous to Africa, India and the United States, is extremely high in calcium, magnesium, potassium, and essential amino acids. The bush tomato, indigenous to Australia, is a rich source of protein, calcium and fiber — and it’s easy to grow. These crops would place in peak position on the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) Double Food Environmental Pyramid. The tool, which maps a food’s nutritional content next to its environmental impact, is an encouraging resource to increase awareness of the links between nutrition and production.

To build on the momentum around ‘super foods’ such as the Brazilian fruit açaí, the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Initiative, funded by the Global Environment Facility, is looking for further evidence to support the use of indigenous crops to preserve the environment, support nutrition and livelihoods, and keep traditional culture alive. Led by Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey and coordinated by Bioversity International, the initiative is analysing the nutrient content of a number of indigenous species identified by communities living in the study areas as potential food sources —such as mushrooms and even tasty termites! Markets will be created for the most promising species to provide additional incomes for rural households. Watch the short video above, launched today, to learn more about the work this Initiative is doing in Sri Lanka.

According to the World Bank, 70% of the world’s poor in rural areas are dependent on agriculture for income. For these smallholder farmers, growing indigenous crops can raise incomes and give farmers access to new markets. In Peru and Bolivia, Bioversity International is helping link Capsicum (chili) farmers to local and international markets. Also in Bolivia, the Jatun Sach’a Initiative works with female farmers to conserve local plant varieties and increase the range of indigenous products they bring to market.

Farmers, government leaders, scientists, readers and eaters — please join Food Tank and Bioversity International to celebrate the International Day for Biological Diversity. Take time today to grow, invest in, research, read about, or simply eat a delicious indigenous crop today to help secure a more sustainable, diverse and nutritious food future tomorrow.

Danielle Nierenberg, President, Food Tank