GFAR blog, Partnerships for impact

Nourishing diversity in our food systems

1_Food Change Lab in Zambia. Credit - Salimu Dawood

On the surface at least, modern foods systems appear to be astonishingly diverse. A person walking into a supermarket almost anywhere in the world can be overwhelmed by the profusion of choices. The productivity of our food systems is also impressive: between 1961 and 2001, crop yields more than doubled in all regions of the developing world except Africa. [1]

But this abundance and variety are deceptive. Hunger and malnutrition persist in many countries in spite of increased food production. A few ingredients like refined flour, sugar, soy, palm oil and high fructose corn syrup appear over and over again in a huge range of different products. What seems like variety is actually just endless re-engineering, re-combining and repackaging of the same basic, highly processed ingredients. Meanwhile, rising consumption of ultra-processed foods such as sodas, chips, energy bars and candies are contributing towards a global epidemic of overweight and obesity, as well as diet-related non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. [2]

At the same time, the world’s rich agricultural biodiversity is at risk, and with it the resilience of our food systems. Agricultural landscapes are becoming increasingly simplified as the number of crops, crop varieties and animal breeds grown on farms declines.

The loss of agricultural biodiversity coincides with a trend towards the homogenisation of diets. A mere 30 crops supply 95 per cent of the calories that people obtain from food, and only four crops – maize, rice, wheat and potatoes – supply over 60 per cent. [3] Such heavy reliance on a narrow range of crops, crop varieties and animal breeds brings long-term increasing risks for agricultural production, for livelihoods, and for nutrition. It also undermines the ability of agriculture to adapt to climate change.

Read the full post on the CFS blog here.

This article was written by Seth Cook, a Senior Researcher in the Natural Resources Group at IIED. Seth Cook ( is a Senior Researcher in the Natural Resources Group at IIED. His work at IIED has included the following topics: sustainable diets; the linkages between agricultural biodiversity and dietary diversity; addressing declining soil fertility in South Asia through organic fertiliser value chains; sustainable intensification; case studies of sustainable agriculture in China; new perspectives on climate resilient dryland agricultural development; Chinese investment in Ethiopian agriculture; and China-Africa forest governance. Prior to joining IIED, Seth worked for IUCN and WWF in Beijing. Seth holds PhD and MA degrees from Yale University in environmental studies.

Seth Cook will be talking about diversity from farm to fork and presenting a policy briefing at the CFS44 side event #13 Multi-stakeholder action to promote food diversity from farm to plate. Tuesday 10 October, 18.00 – 19.30, Iran Room: Bldg B Flr 1.

Photo Credit: Salimu Dawood, Participants in the May 2017 Food Change Lab held in Lusaka, Zambia discuss a map of the food system. 

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