For a Sustainable Diet, Diversify Your Basket!
Photo by Arturo Rivera
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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.

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.

The Forest and Farm Facility will be redoubling its efforts in the next few years to encourage biodiverse farming systems that help create a sustainable future.

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.

This traditional production system, called “chakra”, mimics the natural biodiversity of the forest within which it is practiced, 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 practiced are still productive and the landscapes still teem with life. The immense diversity of produce means the system is ideal for healthy, sustainable diets.

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.

The Dangers of Simplification

Modern agricultural systems favor specialization – 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.

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.

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.

For example, the Kichwa produce 30 or more food products – and they are hoping to sell them 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.

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% of all farms worldwide are owned by an estimated 1.5 billion smallholders on farms covering one to ten 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.

It is well within our grasp to bring biodiverse food production systems such as that of the Kichwa into the mainstream. The on-farm know-how 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.

The Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), an initiative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and AgriCord is working towards this goal. To date, FFF has helped nearly 1,000 FFPOs and regional and global organizations with a combined membership of more than 40 million people in developing countries, including the 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.

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.

Jeffrey Y. Campbell is the Manager of the Forest and Farm Facility, Forestry Policy and Resources Division, Forestry Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. The Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), an initiative of four organizations including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and AgriCord.

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