Agricultural biodiversity, nutrition, and health: making a difference to hunger and nutrition in the developing world

Emile A Frison, Ifeyironwa Francisca Smith, Timothy Johns, Jeremy Cherfas, Pablo B Eyzaguirre
Food and Nutrition Bulletin 2006, 27 (2): 167-79

BACKGROUND: In spite of the strides made globally in reducing hunger, the problems of micronutrient deficiencies and coexisting obesity and related cardiovascular and degenerative diseases constitute a formidable challenge for the future. Attempts to reverse this trend with single-nutrient intervention strategies have met with limited success, resulting in renewed calls for food-based approaches. The deployment of agricultural biodiversity is an approach that entails greater use of local biodiversity to ensure dietary diversity.

OBJECTIVE: To outline a new strategy proposed by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) that employs agricultural biodiversity as the primary resource for food security and health.

METHODS: The authors carried out a meta-analysis to review and assemble existing information on the nutritional and healthful properties of traditional foods based on a diverse set of case studies and food composition and nutritional analysis studies. The methods highlight particular examples of foods where analysis of nutrient and non-nutrient composition reveals important traits to address the growing problems of malnutrition associated with the rise of chronic diseases. Finally, the authors analyze social, economic, and cultural changes that undermine the healthful components of traditional diets.

RESULTS: Based on this multidisciplinary and comparative approach, the authors suggest a holistic food-based approach that combines research to assess and document nutritional and healthful properties of traditional foods, investigating options in which nutritionally valuable traditional foods can contribute to better livelihoods, and ways that awareness and promotional campaigns can identify healthful components of traditional diets that fit the needs of urban and market-oriented consumers.

CONCLUSIONS: There is an urgent need for agricultural research centers, national agricultural research systems, universities, and community-based organizations to work together under a shared policy framework with the aim of developing a strong evidence base linking biodiversity, nutrition, and health. Although these initiatives are still ongoing, the gains realized in small-scale and local pilot efforts have encouraged IPGRI to work with local partners toward the implementation of scale-up efforts in various regions.

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