Agricultural Biodiversity

Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition

Key Issues

There are multiple links between biodiversity, food and nutrition that would be addressed by a cross-cutting initiative.

Biodiversity supplies the basic components of human diet and nutrition

A diversity of plant and animal resources underpin human diets, and provide the basic components of nutrition (e.g. energy, protein, fats, minerals, vitamins and bioactive “non-nutrients” such as antioxidant phytochemicals). Plant and animal species used in human diets include:

Leafy vegetables, fruits, roots, tubers and nuts
Fishes, molluscs, crustaceans, insects
Bushmeat and domesticated animals

Algal and fungal species are also important human food sources. Edible plant and animal species are drawn from both domestic (e.g. wheat, cattle) and wild sources (e.g. palm fruits, fisheries).

Biodiversity contributes to food security

Wild-harvested food species are particularly significant to the poor and landless, both in times of famine and insecurity when food supply mechanisms are disrupted, and at normal times as an essential complement to staple foods.

Biodiversity links to dietary diversity, nutrition and health

A diversity of foods from plants and animals remains the best means to achieve a balanced diet, and the preferred choice for human health. Nutritional status and child growth improve with consumption of greater food diversity, and available research suggests the health benefits of varied diets, particularly in fruits and vegetables. Although precisely identifying optimal diets remains difficult, eating a wide range of foods provides a safeguard against nutritional deficiencies. In this way, diverse diets can contribute to the fight against problems of undernutrition and obesity in both developing and developed countries. 

Biodiversity sustains agricultural ecosystems

Biodiversity is important in supporting agricultural production and sustainability. Genetic diversity can provide access to seeds and planting material better adapted to existing conditions (e.g. drought-resistant traits, or resistance to pests and disease), and is the basis of adaptation as needs and conditions change. Microbial and fungal biodiversity are crucial to soil health, and soil fertility can be improved by the planting of appropriate cover crops. Smallholder farmers around the world currently use some 70 species of green manure and cover crops that, in addition to improving soil health, can also provide high-protein food, animal feed, and medicines. “Associated biodiversity” further supports agricultural ecosystems through maintenance of soil health, pollination, pest control and other symbiotic relationships.

Biodiversity supports rural livelihoods

The collection and culture of food species contributes to the livelihoods of vulnerable households, meeting subsistence needs and providing cash income through market sale. Medicinal plants and non-timber forest products (e.g. nuts, fruits) harvested from the wild represent valuable cash inputs to rural households. In addition, the rural poor can diversify their agricultural production to allow easier access to nutrient-rich foods and cash crops, planting trees and high-value vegetable crops in their home gardens and fields, or developing on-farm aquaculture systems.

Biodiversity is an element of traditional food knowledge systems
Traditional systems, once lost, are difficult to recreate. Farmers are often well aware of and can describe nutritional and therapeutic values specific to certain kinds of foods—or even certain varieties or landraces—that scientific data fail to capture. Traditional knowledge related to food storage, season, growing conditions, preparation and other factors can also influence the nutritional composition of foods.

Biodiversity, food and nutrition links promote environmental conservation

When rural people perceive that agricultural biodiversity has greater value through positive impacts on both income and health, they are more likely to maintain and protect it. Well-nourished, healthier people are more productive as well, and can make a greater contribution to the development of their communities, and the conservation of their environment.

In addition, issues of food production as they relate to health concerns can serve to mobilize consumers that may not otherwise be motivated by environmental or ethical arguments for agricultural sustainability. Food issues can then serve as a way to re-establish links between local production and global consumption, and between the rich and poor.