During the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, socio-political challenges and a disease known as potato blight obliterated the dietary staple for one-third of the population, resulting in the deaths of about 1 million people.
Over a century later, in 1970, Southern corn leaf blight destroyed 25 percent of domestic corn. From 2006-2007, an estimated 45 million pigs were killed or destroyed when Chinese hog farms succumbed to porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. And, last year, the outbreak of stem rust that hit wheat crops in southern Italy was the biggest Europe has seen in more than 50 years and may have spread through the largest wheat-producing region in the world. More recently, coffee leaf rust—a fungus that has crippled the economies of coffee-growing countries and resulted in states of emergency in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras—was confirmed last week to have resurfaced in a variety of coffee originally planted across Honduras since the 2012 fungal epidemic because of its resistance to the pathogen.
Reliance on a handful of varieties or species increases vulnerability in agriculture, yet according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, three-fourths of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species. These changes are a reflection of the loss in agricultural biodiversity—an erosion of diversity in every component that makes food possible—from reduced microbial activity in soils to disruptions in pollinator populations and the increased hybridization and consolidation of the plants and animals we raise for consumption. Globally, we cultivate less than 1 percent of 30,000 edible plant species. Over half of the calories we consume from plants come from wheat, corn, and rice, while 90 percent of the calories we derive from animals come from less than half of the birds and mammals we’ve domesticated for food.
This reduction is most evident in monoculture fields of wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and palm oil—crops that researchers who analyzed 50 years of data on what 98 percent of the world eats have coined the “global standard diet”. But it also shows up on store shelves. We may see an exotic fruit or vegetable in the produce aisle, but dietary staples are increasingly uniform, part of the global trend toward sameness. For example, 90 percent of the dairy cows behind our milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt are from just one breed, the high-yielding Holstein-Friesian. What looks like diversity is often just a diversity of flavors, not actual inputs.
These shifts are, in large part, the effects of an industrialized agricultural system that prioritizes scale and efficiency. These qualities are important and have helped alleviate extreme hunger in certain regions, but mega-plantations of monocrops and uniform animal feeding operations also reduce the capacity of plants, animals, and other organisms to respond to environmental changes. (One pest or disease can wipe out everything—a scenario likely to be exacerbated due to climate change.) And, as history has shown time and again, the system offers no guarantee of food security.
Although agribusinesses and aligned supporters highlight the industrialized model—and the cheap food it generates—as the only way to feed our growing population, the research is more nuanced. Worldwide, we produce more than enough calories to feed everyone on the planet today, as well as the population of 9.6 billion we anticipate by 2050. For those who are hungry, the challenge is not only availability, it’s access: food, and the resources required to buy food, aren’t efficiently or equally distributed. This is why farmers, migrant workers, and restaurant employees are—paradoxically—among the hungriest people in the world.
The greatest hedge against food insecurity is not simply growing and raising more food, but building greater diversity and resilience in what we cultivate. This includes expanding beyond a standard diet where crops are bred for yield and environmental response (such as drought-tolerance or pest-resistance) to the reasons we actually favor one food over another—because of how they make us feel and how they taste. An analysis of the diets of more than 93,000 children from 21 countries across Africa by the Center for International Forestry Research shows that young people who live in areas with greater tree cover, and access to greater biodiversity, have more nutritious diets, even when household incomes are low.
Flavor does not hold comparable physiological merit, but we know deliciousness matters. Food is history, memory, and identity. It feeds many hungers. Diversity, on every level, increases our capacity to respond to challenges.
No country in the world is self-sustaining in regards to the genetic resources needed to improve crops and breeds and feed the world. On this International Day for Biological Diversity, we have the opportunity to celebrate not only what we have, but who we are. We are interdependent; we nourish each other.