Human Nutrition and the Simplification of Modern Diets

Module Progress:

As you just learned, there was a turning point in history where soil nutrition in conventional agriculture was reduced to Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Similarly, approaches towards human nutrition has gone through reductionist thinking as well. These trends can have grave consequences, since human nutrition is drawn primarily from plants and animals, which in turn draw on soil fertility for many nutrients. In this module, we explore how soil is an essential ingredient to healthy food and nutrition, how modern diets have been simplified and also look at how a healthy diet needs to be grounded in what is culturally and environmentally appropriate for each region.

Film 1: Soil: An essential ingredient to healthy food and nutrition

According to the World Health Organization, “Nutrition is the intake of food, considered in relation to the body’s dietary needs. Good nutrition – an adequate, well balanced diet combined with regular physical activity – is a cornerstone of good health. Poor nutrition can lead to reduced immunity, increased susceptibility to disease, impaired physical and mental development, and reduced productivity.”

Enough calories and a culturally-relevant, nutritionally-dense diet are three different ideas of nourishment. Humans need a variety of nutrients, not just energy calories, in order to be properly nourished.

Readings (Choose one):

Article 1: Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity – Directions and solutions for policy, research and action – Opening Address by Changchui He

by Changchui He | from FAO, November 2010

The latest hunger figures show that 925 million people live in chronic hunger. While there is a welcome decline from the 2009 level, the number of hungry people remains unacceptably high. Furthermore, this number does not reflect all the dimensions of malnutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies, for instance, affect an estimated two billion people. Responding properly to the hunger and malnutrition problems requires urgent, resolute and concerted actions. It calls for united efforts by all relevant actors and at all levels.

For the first time, the concept of “biodiversity” is linked with the emerging issue of “sustainable diets” in exploring solutions for the problems of malnutrition in its various forms, while addressing the loss of biodiversity and the erosion of indigenous and traditional food cultures. Our purpose is to promote the development of new sustainable food production and consumption models. There is currently no universally agreed definition of a “sustainable diet”. However, a definition is needed to develop policy, research and programme activities for the promotion of sustainable food systems that minimize environmental degradation and biodiversity losses. There is growing academic recognition of the complexity of defining sustainability, as well as an increasing body of evidence showing the unsustainable nature of current food systems. A definition of sustainable diets shall therefore address sustainability of the whole food supply chain and thus provide guidance on promoting and applying the concept in different agro-ecological zones.

The alarming pace of food biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and their impact on poverty and health makes a compelling case for re-examining food-agricultural systems and diets. FAO has been working with member countries, international and regional partners for the past few years to determine the status and trends of plant genetic resources that feed the world. We looked into the key achievements as well as the major gaps and needs that require urgent attention. This effort has culminated in the publication of the Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture that was launched by the Director-General of FAO last week. The Report provides a wealth of information from over 100 countries for improving conservation and sustainable use of plant diversity to meet the key challenges of malnutrition, food insecurity and rapid climate change. It points out that plant diversity can be lost in a short lapse of time in the face of rapid  climate change, population pressure and environmental degradation.

Globalization, industrial agriculture, rural poverty, population pressures and urbanization have changed food production and consumption in ways that profoundly affect ecosystems and human diets, leading to an overall simplification of diets. High input industrial agriculture and long-distance transport increase the availability and affordability of refined carbohydrates and fats, leading to an overall simplification of diets and reliance on a limited number of energy-rich foods. In spite of the increasing acknowledgement of the value of traditional diets, major dietary shifts are currently observed in different parts of the world, representing a breakdown in the traditional food system. This trend has coincided with escalating rates of obesity and associated chronic diseases, further exacerbated by the coexistence of micronutrient deficiencies, owing to the lack of dietary diversity in modern diets. Dietary shifts that have occurred in urban areas are currently extending to rural communities as well, where people have abandoned diets based on locally-grown crop varieties in favour of “westernized” diets.

Article 2: Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity – Directions and solutions for policy, research and action – Opening Address by Emile Frisson

by Emile Frisson | from FAO, November 2010

When talking about nutrition we must attempt to move beyond the predominant medicalized approach of tackling individual or single micronutrient deficiencies or macronutrient deficiencies, attempting to fix the problem after the problem has occurred and with very little effort to prevent the problem in the first place. In order to tackle this issue we should begin looking at malnutrition through food systems, since it is the integration of the entire food system that will provide a sustainable answer to the problems of malnutrition. This Symposium is the right forum for us to do just that. I believe the true definition of food and nutrition security is that of bringing diverse diets, diets that fulfil all the needs of human beings, to everyone’s table. This takes me to the role of agriculture, with nutrition being in the medical camp and agriculture just caring about the quantity of food produced, any links between agriculture and nutrition are weak or totally lacking. We must, as Deputy Director- General of FAO Dr He has already mentioned, prevent the simplification of agriculture to the three major staples. Currently these three major staples provide 60 percent of the calorie intake from plant origin at the global level. Such a degree of diet simplification is alarming and it is high time that we looked not only at producing quantities of food that are sufficient, but also nutrients and nutrition sufficient to fulfill all needs.

I have already mentioned the double burden of malnutrition, this is now becoming the world’s number one problem in terms of public health yet it has not been tackled properly nor is it even considered a major problem by many decision-makers. It is up to us now to make sure that this increased attention to nutrition looks at this issue in a holistic way and in a way that will prevent problems in the future. The organization of the Symposium also coincides with the  International Year of Biodiversity. The role that biodiversity can play in addressing the problems of malnutrition has been underestimated, understudied and deserves much more attention. For this reason, this particular Symposium on Biodiversity for Sustainable Diets is very important to me, it is also important that the general public is more aware of the importance of diversity and the potential of biodiversity in addressing the problems of malnutrition. In this regard Bioversity organized, in May of this year, a whole week’s celebration: “La Settimana della Biodiversità” here in Rome together with the secretariat of the CBD, IFAD, FAO, the Comune di Roma and many other partners to highlight the importance and raise awareness among the broader public of biodiversity for better nutrition. There is an urgent need to change the paradigm of agricultural production in order to integrate this dimension of nutritional quality, this requires us to move beyond the major staples and to look at the many hundreds and thousands of neglected and underutilized plant and animal species that mean the difference between an unsustainable and sustainable diet. It is not just about producing calories, but diverse diets and that is why these neglected and underutilized species are so important.

One such example comes from Kenya, where we have been working with leafy green vegetables that have disappeared from the tables and markets in Nairobi. Our aim was to reintroduce these vegetables, to provide nutritious food in supermarkets and markets and to give farmers the opportunity to augment their income. In India, we have been working with the Swaminathan Foundation to look at nutritious millets (foxtail millet, finger millet and others that have various nutritious qualities) and reintroduce them in areas where they had been abandoned due to national policies promoting cassava production for starch. Through analysing the impact of these policies we were able to show that the income derived by the cassava the farmers sold was not sufficient to buy the millet they would have been producing otherwise.

What is more, the farmers themselves were consuming the cassava and of course this had a negative impact on their diet. We have been working in the Andes with native cereals, quinoa and amaranth etc., in an effort to improve farming technologies and to allow the production of these nutritious foods to not only be maintained, but to develop further and also enter international markets. These examples and numerous others show that we can make a difference, the simplification of agriculture  and the simplification of diets is not something that we just have to accept.

In Kenya, the major obstacle in getting those leafy vegetables onto the tables was one of image, of being considered as backward, and the common conception that this is the food of the poor. However, through communication efforts involving the Minister of Health, the chefs of the most famous restaurants of Nairobi who prepared new recipes with this leafy vegetable and by introducing it in the canteen of parliament, this food has been re-evaluated and people are taking pride again in producing, purchasing and consuming these vegetables. Today production is not sufficient to meet demand, so it is possible to make a difference.

Article 3: Insights from agroecology and a critical next step: Integrating human health

By Megan E. O’Rourke, Marcia S. DeLonge & Ricardo Salvador

Diverse Diets and Farming Systems

The first video shows how globalization has affected nutrition security, farming practices and culture in the Solomon Islands.

Film 2: Nutrition Security in Solomon Islands

The second video shows how traditional foods are more nutritious.

Film 3: African Traditional Foods – The Forgotten Nutritive Treasures of Africa

Article 3: “Indigenous diets can help fight modern illnesses, say health experts”

by IRIN | from The Guardian, February 2014


Optional Reading:

Article 4: How to Decolonize Your Diet: The importance of Indigenous Foods

by Shelby Pope | Lucky Peach