Not just any apricot in the fruit basket - Understanding the connections between agricultural biodiversity, human health and nutrition

Not just any apricot in the fruit basket - Understanding the connections between agricultural biodiversity, human health and nutrition

Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health, co-published by the CBD and WHO, brings together the state of knowledge on how biodiversity and human health are linked. Danny Hunter, Senior Scientist, Bioversity International, explains.

A new book, Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health, co-published by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the World Health Organization (WHO) brings together the current state of knowledge about how biodiversity and human health are linked.

Danny Hunter, Senior Scientist, Bioversity International, Lead Coordinating Author of the book and co-lead author of two chapters: ‘Nutrition, biodiversity and human health’ and 'Agricultural biodiversity and food security', tells us more.

Q: Why the need for this State of Knowledge Review on the links between biodiversity and human health?
A: As international bodies such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize that human health and nutrition and environmental sustainability are intrinsically linked, it becomes increasingly important to further our understanding of these links and identify knowledge gaps and future areas of work. This book, which is the result of collaboration between CBD and WHO and many other partners, will help inform the recent shift towards agriculture that is more sensitive to nutrition. It will also be a valuable source to inform the emerging post-2015 sustainable development agenda. For the chapter on nutrition, biodiversity and health, we have pulled together a strong evidence-base for all elements of biodiversity. We are not just looking at the nutrients in individual crops or in the diversity within crops, but also nutrients in other kinds of biodiversity –aquatic, insect, animal and even down to things like mushrooms.

Q: Why do you think that agricultural biodiversity for nutrition and health is now increasingly on the radar at international levels?
A: Because people are slowly realizing that a transformational change is required to our agricultural and food systems and for the first time thought leaders in their respective fields – agriculture, environment, health – are understanding that to achieve positive outcomes, we need to work together in more integrated ways. The post-2015 development agenda really does give us an opportunity to realize this. We have a global crisis with around 2 billion people missing vital minerals and vitamins in their diets. These people are not just in developing countries. Even when people have enough to eat, they are increasingly eating simplified diets that are rich in energy and low in nutrition. Many foods that are nutritionally valuable have fallen by the wayside. I am always shocked by the statistic that just three staple crops account for more than 50% of the calories people get from plants in their diets when you consider that over 7000 plants have been traditionally used as sources of food. And with this simplification comes an increase in diet-related diseases (NCDs) like diabetes and heart disease as well as loss of the biodiversity that our food production systems depend on.

Q: Can you give an example of how agricultural biodiversity can help achieve food and nutrition security?
A: Well if you look at the apricot as an example, you will find that one apricot variety has different nutritional properties than another. And the range is huge. For example, one variety of apricot can provide less than 1 percent of the recommended daily intake for vitamin A, while another can provide more than 200 percent. That is significant when we are looking at the nutritional adequacy of individuals and populations by examining the combinations of foods that they can access throughout the year – from the farm, the home garden, the market or the wild. At Bioversity International we are looking at how including banana varieties which are a staple of diets in Eastern Africa can help meet daily Vitamin A requirements of children in Eastern Africa. After screening more than 400 varieties, we are now working closely with the project communities to test 12 promising ones. And it is not just about nutrition. It stands to reason that if you are increasing the diversity within a landscape for improved nutrition, you are also going to increase the capacity of that landscape to adapt to climate change, and be more resilient and productive. Human health also benefits from additional ecosystems that are underpinned by this increased biodiversity – for example, from cleaner air and water. There are far more benefits from increasing biodiversity in the diet than just improving nutrition – its win win.

Q: So how do we know what is nutritionally valuable?
A: The simple answer is that we do know about the nutritional value of some agricultural biodiversity but we don’t know enough about the vast majority of it. It is more than just carrying out a nutritional analysis of foods eaten in a diet. It is also about understanding how people relate to food. People do not eat nutrients. People eat food and they vary what they eat according to their preferences and financial, cultural, and seasonal availability options. For example, we know that fish can be a rich source of Vitamin A in Bangladesh where most households have access to a freshwater pond. Small indigenous species, such as mola and chanda, have high Vitamin A content, and are eaten whole including the bones and the head, which is where this vitamin A content is contained. But in other cultures, eating all parts of the fish such as the eye can be unacceptable, even if this is where the most nutrition is contained. We also know that there are crucial interactions between the different elements in a meal and that one component can in fact enhance the availability of certain micronutrients. There is much we have yet to learn.

Q: Are countries that are driving these agendas forward into action seeing this translate into changes on the ground?
A: The good news is that interest in diverse traditional species and foods is increasing and that interest is turning into action. At Bioversity International, we have been working closely with countries like Brazil, Turkey, Kenya and Sri Lanka who are leading the ‘Mainstreaming biodiversity for nutrition and health'* Initiative. Brazil, which is a biodiversity hotspot, is making great strides to embed biodiversity for nutrition and health into public policies and agendas at the national level such as the national school feeding programme which provides around 50 million school meals a day. Information on the nutritional value of 70 native fruit tree species has been collected to help inform public policies on improved nutrition, family farming, food security and the sustainable use of biodiversity. The other countries in this initiative are also highlighting how global interest in this issue can be transformed into local action. We are starting to see some positive impacts from these efforts, but it is still too early to gather solid evidence to measure the extent of that impact.

Q: What do you see as the next steps?
A: In addition to the book, voluntary draft guidelines for mainstreaming biodiversity into policies and programmes, and into plans of action at the national and regional levels, were just endorsed at the recent 15th Regular Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and represent a roadmap for local action. These guidelines will assist countries to use traditional local foods that may have fallen off menus but be high in nutrition, including wild, neglected and underutilized foods to help address malnutrition. They will also help promote the knowledge, conservation, development and use of nutritionally-rich varieties and breeds. Furthermore, many of the recommendations from the recent Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) promote the greater utilization of neglected nutritious species and consumption of nutrient-dense foods. We are looking forward now to the finalization of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and keen to see biodiversity for nutrition and health firmly placed on the agenda.

For more information, contact:
Danny Hunter


This book is a result of collaboration between the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners bringing together expertise and perspectives across different disciplines. Bioversity International, along with other individuals and organizations, has contributed to 2 chapters:  that review both the links between agricultural biodiversity and food security, and the links between nutrition, biodiversity and human health.

*The GEF 'Mainstreaming biodiversity for nutrition and health' initiative is led by Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey and coordinated by Bioversity International, with implementation support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and additional support from the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.