For a sustainable diet, diversify your basket

by Jeffrey Y. Campbell, Manager of the Forest and Farm Facility at FAO In the Ecuadorian Amazon, Kichwa farmers grow dozens of products on tiny parcels of land. Their lands hum with biodiversity, yielding nutritious foods that have sustained families for generations. Wandering among fruit and nut trees and crops, these indigenous agroforesters fill their baskets

by Jeffrey Y. Campbell, Manager of the Forest and Farm Facility at FAO

In the Ecuadorian Amazon, Kichwa farmers grow dozens of products on tiny parcels of land. Their lands hum with biodiversity, yielding nutritious foods that have sustained families for generations. Wandering among fruit and nut trees and crops, these indigenous agroforesters fill their baskets to overflowing with a wide range of products, such as cacao, coffee, vanilla, honey, muriti, corn, guayusa, banana, cassava and uva de monte.

Forest Food
Forests are a rich source of food and nutrition © Basudev Mahapatra

This traditional production system, called “chakra”, mimics the natural biodiversity of the forest within which it is practised, supporting trees and agricultural plants of many sizes and species. A single chakra farm can support up to 80 plant species. The chakra system has been in use for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. The soils where it is practised are still productive and the landscapes still teem with life. The immense diversity of produce means the system is ideal for healthy, sustainable diets.

Read more: As climate change alters agriculture, forest food could be the answer. India’s indigenous Kondhs prove it

Yet, despite their many strengths, the chakra and other biodiverse production systems around the world have largely been forsaken in the quest for large-scale food production. The once-diverse basket of forest and farm products has become depleted.

amazon deforestation
Agricultural development, such as the soybean field pictured, is one of the principal causes of Amazon deforestation, interesting Mato Grosso state in particular © Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

The dangers of simplification

Modern agricultural systems favour specialisation – the monocultural production of commodities that can be fed into voracious, highly focused value chains (systems for taking products to markets, adding value to the products along the way). This agricultural and market simplification is done in the name of efficiency, but there may be long-term dangers.

Read more: Danielle Nierenberg. Eating sustainably means buying foods that have a story

For example, specialized agriculture tends to exclude farmers – especially women and indigenous communities – who grow local products. Putting biodiversity back into agriculture and marketing diverse products, on the other hand, could have enormous benefits for otherwise marginalized people. It could also help reduce vulnerability to agricultural diseases that might otherwise devastate entire crops; decrease the risk posed by fluctuations in prices of single crops; and increase adaptability in the face of rapid environmental and climatic change, thus avoiding serious declines in production.

Organic agriculture in Cuba
A Cuban farmer picks tomatoes in a field © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In an increasingly uncertain world, we need food production systems that can cope with dramatic climatic variations, provide nutritious diets, and build the resilience of communities and landscapes. We urgently need to turn the predominant food-production model on its head. One of the keys for doing so is the humble basket.

Branding baskets

Few existing value chains are capable of dealing with the diverse products that originate in forest and farm landscapes. We can encourage this diversity, however, by branding entire “baskets” of produce grown in an area.

Read more: India, how indigenous farmers are developing climate resilient agriculture

For example, the Kichwa produce 30 or more food products: which they are hoping to sell in national and international markets via “basket of products” value chains under a single “Chakra” brand. Such a marketing ploy, with suitable verification, would increase income for farmers by enabling them to sell their entire suite of products, while offering customers more dietary diversity and the opportunity to support sustainable farming.

women farmers afghanistan strawberries
Afghan women pick strawberries at the Badam Bagh farm in Kabul. The women make about 5 dollars a day working at the 55 hectares farm that grows 22 kinds of fruits and vegetables © Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

The importance of producer organizations

Another key to refocusing agriculture on diversity is the role of forest and farm producer organizations (FFPOs). On their own, small-scale producers have little power, either in the marketplace or to influence policies that might encourage the development of basket-of-produce value chains. Nevertheless, they are crucial: 90 percent of all farms worldwide are owned by an estimated 1.5 billion smallholders on farms covering 1–10 hectares. By gathering these small farmers together, FFPOs can reach a scale that is competitive with large-scale producers – with the benefits of increasing social and ecological resilience and encouraging biodiverse landscapes and social inclusivity.

Read more: Industrial agriculture isn’t feeding the world, only agroecology can

It is well within our grasp to bring biodiverse food production systems such as that of the Kichwa into the mainstream. The on-farm knowhow already exists in many parts of the world, but we need to give much more support to FFPOs to harness the power of the market.

afganistan women potatoes
Women harvest potatoes in Afghanistan. In the central highlands wheat and potatoes are the main crops. Most families grow enough to feed themselves for seven months a year but a high-carb diet of mostly bread and potatoes leads to malnutrition © Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

The Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), an initiative of four organizations including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has helped nearly 1,000 FFPOs and regional and global organizations with a combined membership of more than 40 million people in developing countries. The FFF works with indigenous and other groups, including Kichwa farmers, to resurrect their farming systems and find valuable markets for their produce. With FFF assistance, for example, more than 60 bioentrepreneurs in Ecuador are working to put certified Chakra products onto the market.

Read more: India, tribal women are leading the conversion to organic agriculture

The FFF will be redoubling its efforts in the next few years because encouraging biodiverse farming systems is important for creating a sustainable future. By adding diversity to their shopping baskets, consumers worldwide will not only be improving the nutrition of their families, they will be supporting sustainable food production systems, resilient landscapes, and smallholder farmers. A “basket of products” value chain approach can help make this happen.

This article was initially published by IISD 

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