Global F&V Newsletter

N° 79 | December 2022
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One Health - a concept considered as the fundamental basis for society's health problems

Fruit and vegetables biodiversity for nutritionally diverse diets: The need of a One Health approach to address challenges and opportunities

Jody Harris World Vegetable Center, Thailand
Maarten van Zonneveld World Vegetable Center, Taiwan

Human health issues as well as those of the state of the natural systems on which we depend are intrinsically linked. Planetary health therefore brings together both issues (Dangour, 2017). Within this framework, it has long been understood that nutrition and biodiversity (see definition below) are connected (Johns, 2006). Indeed, fruit and vegetables are key components of diets providing essential nutrients, phytonutrients, and fibre for health (FAO, 2021). They are also important parts of agrobiodiversity (see definition below) with more than 1,000 vegetable species being recognized worldwide (Meldrum, 2018). Over millennia, the biodiversity of fruit and vegetables have been shaped by human activities according to our dietary preferences, which have co-evolved with the availability of different fruits and vegetables in different agroecological settings. The use and preservation of this biocultural heritage in contemporary food systems depends on a wide range of social, cultural, political, environmental, and economic factors.

This evidence-based literature review (Harris, 2022) presents how the biodiversity of fruit and vegetables supports dietary diversity for current human populations, and how it can be preserved and enhanced for future generations.

Dietary diversity is associated with human health with higher individual dietary diversity being associated with better nutrient adequacy. In particular, consuming a diversity of fruits and vegetables—with the nutrients, phytonutrients and dietary fibres contained therein—is essential for health (FAO, 2020). Yet, fruit and vegetables intake remains globally low for a majority of the population (Afshin, 2019; Kalmpourtzidou, 2020). This low consumption is mainly due to their lack of availability, accessibility and affordability in certain countries or regions.

However, even if fruit and vegetables are available, accessible and affordable, most people still do not consume sufficient amounts (Hall, 2009), particularly if they are not considered an acceptable or desirable food choice, for instance due to food safety concerns, taste, convenience, or cultural appropriateness, or if they have low knowledge or awareness about their health benefits (Aggarwal, 2016; Ha, 2020; Hammelman, 2014).

Therefore, food availability, accessibility, affordability, and desirability are the food system links between agrobiodiversity and dietary diversity (Toledo, 2006; Turner, 2018) with more species-diverse food associated with better micronutrient-quality diets (Lachat, 2018).

Mainstreaming the use of genetic diversity and supporting local farmers could help to preserve fruit and vegetable biodiversity for current and future generation

The current biodiversity of fruit and vegetables continues to decline in farmers’ fields, at the landscape level and in ecosystems more generally, alongside the rapid decline in overall biodiversity worldwide (Díaz, 2019). More than 85% of the world’s terrestrial ecoregions have ecosystems that are poorly conserved, degraded or disappearing due to human actions (Dinerstein, 2017). The richness and abundance of wild fruit and vegetable species, as well as cultivated wild relatives of fruit and vegetable species and pollinators and seed dispersers, are declining with the degradation and loss of these ecosystems due to land-use change, global climate change and other threats (Díaz, 2019; Pilling, 2020). Consequently, these fruit and vegetable genetic resources are likely to disappear with changes in land use, climate and agriculture if there are no better conservation options at the farm, landscape, and protected area levels, and without support for genebanks.

Even though conservation of fruit and vegetables biodiversity is sub-optimal worldwide, several important trends are increasing its conservation and use in food systems at global and local levels. In addition to the fact that the proportion of fruit and vegetables in global food production is increasing (Gould, 2017; Khoury, 2014; Martin, 2019), here are some trends that could bend the curve of decline in fruit and vegetables biodiversity even though they may not completely stop, let alone reverse, the loss:

  • Advanced technologies are now accessible to public and private breeders and researchers globally to mainstream the use of genetic diversity for developing new varieties of fruits and vegetables (Jamnadass, 2020; Schouten, 2019);
  • Local fruit and vegetable species and varieties are still maintained and shared by farmers and communities in different production systems. These plants provide nutritional and food security, income-generating opportunities, and ecosystem services, and contribute to cultural identity, and also represent a valuable conservation of biodiversity for food. Governments and societal actors can further support these farmers and communities to establish or maintain seed networks, and encourage equitable business linkages to markets for more resilient livelihoods based in maintaining biodiversity, through incentives and regulation (Dulloo, 2017 ; Sthapit, 2016).

A One Health integrated approach to address agrobiodiversity and dietary diversity together while considering synergies and tradeoffs

Linking agrobiodiversity and dietary diversity have synergies and tradeoffs. The main synergy is the following: promoting diverse food consumption can encourage conservation of agrobiodiversity; at the same time, promoting agrobiodiversity is a practical approach for dietary diversity, food security, and rural development (Toledo, 2006).

There are also potential trade-offs between conserving agrobiodiversity and promoting diverse diets for everyone everywhere, which include the high requirements for producing sufficient fruit and vegetables in terms of land, water, and chemical inputs depending on context and production method (Aleksandrowicz et al., 2016). In addition, there are trade-offs among conservation of biodiversity as an end in itself versus leveraging fruit and vegetable agrobiodiversity to provide food options and improve diets, given scarce resources.

With so many factors involved in understanding the links between agrobiodiversity and dietary diversity – from plant genetic resources and ethnobotany to nutritional screening and breeding, to socio-cultural behaviours and political economy – interdisciplinary research is clearly needed (Hunter, 2016; Méndez, 2015).

Based on: Harris et al. Fruit and vegetable biodiversity for nutritionally diverse diets: Challenges, opportunities, and knowledge gaps. Global Food Security, 2022;33:100618

Definitions : Biodiversity and Agrobiodiversity (FAO, 2004; Frison, 2011)
  • Overall biodiversity is defined as the sum of all living organisms at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels.
  • Agrobiodiversity is more narrowly defined as the range of species, varieties, and ecosystems – together with crop wild relatives, pollinators, and other associated organisms – which are used by humans for food and agriculture. It sustains and stabilizes both agro and natural ecosystems of food production and harvesting. Agrobiodiversity is the source of genetic diversity for developing future foods that can tolerate changing environments and keep pace with changing food needs and preferences.
  • Fruit and vegetable biodiversity is part of agrobiodiversity.

    Key messages
    • Food availability, accessibility, affordability, and desirability are the food system links between agrobiodiversity and dietary diversity.
    • Conservation of fruit and vegetable biodiversity and consumption of diverse diets are sub-optimal
    • Mainstreaming the use of genetic diversity and supporting local farmers could help to preserve fruit and vegetable biodiversity for current and future generation.
    • A One Health integrated approach is needed considering the potential win-wins and trade-offs for policy and action, building on food systems.
    • More research is needed, particularly in the context of fruit and vegetable biodiversity and diets in different contexts.
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