The headlines are, in a word, terrifying.
On Monday, the most comprehensive report on biodiversity to date — written by 455 experts representing 50 countries — revealed that one-eighth of the world’s plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, a dramatic rupture in the rich diversity that underpins the very existence of life on Earth.
But this information should not come as a surprise. The report follows a landmark assessment released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in February that looked at biodiversity in food and agriculture. Researchers found that of the roughly 6,000 plant species used for food, only nine account for two-thirds of the world’s crop production. One-third of global fish stocks are overfished. Most of our milk, meat and eggs comes from just a handful of animal species, and more than one-fourth of 8,000 local breeds of livestock are at risk of extinction.
Once lost, the report cautioned, agricultural biodiversity can’t be recovered. That analysis was preceded by an earlier study reporting a “hyper-alarming” loss of insect biodiversity in the Americas — a shift one conservationist interviewed by The Washington Post described as “one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read.”
The steady drumbeat of loss has become deafening.
From soil to seed to pollinator, plant to fish to animal, species that support and sustain us are in peril. This loss has (and will) impact our health, the quality of air and water, and the experiences we have in nature. But the place where we engage with it most directly — and have the greatest opportunity to affect change — is on our plates.
Pollution, overexploitation and overharvesting of agricultural resources, climate change, urbanization and changing diets have all played a role in the loss of agricultural biodiversity. But the biggest driver of change, according to the recent report, is how we use and manage our land and water. This shift is driven by industrialized agriculture, a system that emphasizes scale over sustainability. The way we grow and raise food now is compromising what we will be able to eat in the future.
The FAO report says that conservationists, breeders, farmers and many others are actively working to solve this challenge through practices such as organic agriculture, integrated pest management, sustainable soil management, ecosystem restoration and diversified approaches to fisheries and farm management.
But how can we, the eaters, take part?
We can start by looking at the bigger system. The refrain we hear, time and again, is that the only way we can feed our hungry planet is by cultivating vast monocultures of a handful of high-yielding plants (and animals). But when we shrink our diet to just a few select crops, we might be more efficient in the short run, but we increase long-term risks. One pest or disease, coupled with the volatility of a changing climate, can endanger them all.
While industries push for homogenization in the name of feeding people, the data show something different: Global agriculture produces more calories per person now than it did 60 years ago. We produce enough food but are falling short on access. Some of the lowest-paid people in the world work in food and agriculture: subsistence farmers, migrant laborers and fast-food workers who are not able to afford what they grow, raise and serve.
This is where our work begins — on a systemic level. The demand for increased amounts of cheap food is not the solution. We need to cultivate greater justice and more economic prosperity, fighting for not simply a minimum wage, but a living wage that allows all of us to feed ourselves well.
Food is more than fuel for our bodies. Nourishment is revealed through nutrient counts, for sure, but also through flavor, communion and the long stories of how food binds us together — and tears us apart.
Once you realize that, you can pursue a more biodiverse diet. Here’s how to start:
Reconsider what, on the outside, looks like diversity at the grocery store. Scientists who analyzed 50 years of data on what 98 percent of the world eats found that, through globalization, we now have access to diverse foods from all over the world: mangoes in Michigan, Nordic salmon in New York and so on. But the global trend, they discovered, is toward the same types — and same amounts — of wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and palm oil.
Flip over any processed food and look at the ingredient list. Or take a walk down the produce or dairy aisle. Ninety percent of our dairy products come from one breed of cow. The world grows 1,000 varieties of bananas, but we see one — the Cavendish, a banana that is succumbing to a different strain of the same fungus that wiped out its predecessors.
Reach for the foods that extend beyond that small list of commodity crops. That was the simple response when I asked the lead researcher of the study how to respond to this challenge. Olive oil, craft beer and ancient grains are a good — and delicious — start.
Be curious. We save biodiverse plant and animal material in stored collections, in wild places and on farms. But farmers can’t grow what we won’t eat.
Seek out farmers markets and try new varieties. At farmers markets, you’re more likely to find local and seasonal varieties of food. Look for what you may not find in your local grocery store: the mottled heirloom tomato, the multicolored farm eggs, the vegetable you have never seen before.
Take one bite, and then another and another. Psychologists have found that the way to get over our fears or aversions to certain foods is by understanding and experiencing more of them. Keep exploring. Our food choices matter. They shape and reshape our food system.
Savor what you have, whatever it is. Know where it comes from — and the kind of impact it has.
“Eating with the fullest pleasure — pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance,” philosopher and farmer Wendell Berry writes, “is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.” No country is self-sustaining when it comes to the resources required for food security. Seed by seed, meal by meal. We need each other — and we feed each other.
Sethi is the author of “Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love,” a book exploring the loss of agricultural biodiversity through the lens of flavor and stories of bread, wine, coffee, chocolate and beer.