Call to action:
Replacing animal protein with a diverse, plant-rich diet is one of the most effective ways we can end the climate crisis and create regenerative and resilient food systems.
Industrial meat production comes with steep costs to the environment, animal welfare, and the climate. Meat and animal feed account for nearly 60 percent of all greenhouse gases generated by the food sector. Overconsumption of meat harms our health. We must transition to a plant-rich diet. However, of the thirty-one thousand plant species that humans can eat, today just nine make up two thirds of all crop production: wheat, corn, rice, soybean, potatoes, palm oil fruit, sugarcane, sugar beet, and cassava. The result has been a loss of nutrition, soil health, and community resilience. These losses impact social justice, food security, and sovereignty. The restoration of food diversity is being led by smallholder farms, Indigenous groups, and traditional food cultures. The goal is to reinvigorate diets, soils, agriculture, and cultures with nutritionally dense, regionally appropriate food grown regeneratively.
Learn why we lost food diversity. The main culprit is industrial agriculture, which has treated food as a commodity for more than a century, emphasizing uniformity, specialization, and mass production. The so-called Green Revolution sped up the loss of food diversity by intensifying crop production with chemicals and the genetic manipulation of crops. Today, our food system is responsible for soaring obesity rates and widespread malnutrition (see Big Food Nexus). Critical crop species are under threat of extinction. Specific reasons for the loss of food diversity include:
- Food companies and retailers convinced consumers to accept fewer varieties at the supermarket
- The rise of highly processed food increased demand for corn, wheat, soybeans, and palm oil(see Palm Oil Nexus). Ultra-Processed Planet is a report from the Soil Association about impact of ultraprocessed diets on the environment and climate.
- Globalization has rewarded a standard suite of crops at the expense of local or regional foods.
- The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has reduced the varieties of crops and increased the amount of chemical use.
- Exotic and invasive species are contributing to the loss of biological diversity worldwide, including food diversity.
- Pesticide and herbicide use, including drift to adjacent crop fields, is extensively used by industrial agriculture to kill life.
- Land conversion for agriculture, especially deforestation, and land degradation, including soil erosion, cause the loss of many species.
- Pollution from commodity agriculture and other industries poisons waterways and soils, damaging natural habitats and healthy farmland.
- The effects of climate change are damaging global food supplies and reducing the ability of local communities to grow their own food.
- Population growth and urban expansion are reducing the amount of land available for food production.
- National food policies advantage “cheap” food and commodity systems over diverse, nutritionally dense varieties.
Learn why it’s important to restore food diversity. Growing and eating a wide variety of foods, including wild-harvested ones, have major benefits for individuals, farmers, communities, cultures, and the planet. Agrobiodiversity—as it is called by researchers—is particularly important to the well-being of Indigenous peoples, traditional cultures, and communities of smallholder farms around the world, many of whom are on the front lines of the climate crisis (see Agroecology Nexus, Tropical Forests Nexus, and Agroforestry Nexus). Benefits include:
- Eating a diverse diet of nutrient-rich foodsprovides essential proteins, enzymes, minerals, polyphenols, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. Here is an article from the American Heart Association about the heart benefits. Here is a study of how plant-rich diets can prevent type 2 diabetes. Here are six reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the environmental, health, and climate benefits of plant-based diets.
- Neglected and underutilized species (NUS) are plants with food value that have been overlooked or ignored by researchers, food companies, and policy makers for decades. Often, they are highly adapted to local environments and utilized by Indigenous and traditional communities. Cultivating them can fight hunger, poverty, and malnutrition around the world. They can restore degraded land (see Restoring Degraded Land Nexus). Future Smart Food is a report on achieving Zero Hunger in Asia using neglected and underutilized species. Here is an article about how NUS can help empower women and improve nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa. Here are three case studies from Mozambique involving vitamin A.
- Edible Plants of the World is a comprehensive database that can help people select plants to eat or grow in their area. It can be organized by nutrition, including iron, zinc, and vitamins A and C.
- For millions of farmers, pastoralists, fishers, and forest users, diverse food crops grown regeneratively provide critical nutrition, food security, and livelihoods. Many traditional plants—called landraces—have been adapted to local conditions for centuries and their genes help ensure their endurance in times of environmental stress. Here is a story about how an ancient potato could thrive under climate change.
- Seed sovereignty is crucial to plant diversity. The right to collect, preserve, and use the seeds of a crop year to year is embedded in Indigenous and traditional agriculture. This sovereignty is under threat from multinational agribusinesses in their drive to control the world’s crops and enforce uniformity and specialization. Seed banks are being established to safeguard community seeds. Legal protection is being pursued to protect seed sovereignty. Activists are demanding that seeds be publicly owned.
- Diversifying our food is a social justice issue. The damaging effects of our food system falls hardest on communities of color. Diabetes, heart disease, COVID, and cancer are amplified by poverty and a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food.
- Wildlife diversity is connected to food diversity. Here is a study from Costa Rica that concludes that diversified farms provide more stable environments for birds than single-crop farms.
Eat more diverse foods. Consumers have contributed to the loss of food diversity by focusing their food purchases on a narrow range of easy-to-buy and easy-to-cook staples (pushed by large food companies), rejecting crops and foods that are unfamiliar or viewed negatively for social or cultural reasons. There are more than ten thousand varieties of tomatoes, including thousands of heirloom species, but consumers prefer just a few types. Deliberately select more diverse foods, whether at a grocery store, restaurant, or farmers’ market. Examples of foods that were once considered “exotic” that have become popular include quinoa, spelt, lentils, wild rice, and pumpkin, flax, and hemp seeds.
- Heirloom plants are edible fruits and vegetables that were cultivated in the past but are often unavailable today in most stores and markets. Here is a list of seventeen heirloom fruits and vegetables. Here is another shopping list.
- Foodprint is a dedicated to raising awareness about the impact your meal has on the environment, including a Real Food Encyclopedia. Here is their guide to eating out, cooking, shopping, growing your own food, and supporting local producers.
- One overlooked group are perennial fruits and vegetables. These are crops that don’t need to be reseeded each year, including herbs, vines, trees, cacti, and woody plants. There are more than six hundred types of cultivated perennial vegetables in the world, representing more than a third of all vegetable species. Here is a list.
Reduce meat consumption significantly. Meat should be a rarity in our diets, not a staple. Industrial meat production is linked to air and water pollution, deforestation, groundwater depletion, animal suffering, the spread of disease, land degradation, large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and the wasteful use of cropland to grow animal feed. The overconsumption of meat causes chronic illnesses, affecting millions of people and burdening healthcare systems. It is associated with land seizure and violations of Indigenous peoples’ rights. Substantially reducing your annual meat consumption can reduce environmental degradation, improve your health, and help stop climate change. Key points:
Avoid highly-processed and engineered meat substitutes. Cellular meat and ultraprocessed, plant derived substitutes are being pitched as alternatives for consumers who want the experience of eating meat without the environmental costs. However, these products have notable shortcomings:
- Highly-processed plant-based meat is not a whole food. Products such as Impossible Burgeruse many ingredients, including soybean which is grown as a commodity crop and linked to a range of environmental troubles, including deforestation in the Amazon basin. The health effects of highly-processed plant-based meat are understudied. Some ingredients have raised concerns among activists. Synthetic additives such as the ‘heme’, which replicate the iron-containing compounds found in blood, are used in Impossible Burger. The long-term effects on human health are unknown.
- Cellular meat (also called cultured, artificial, and lab-grown meat) is created with an intensive and highly technical process utilizing cells harvested from animals. Here is a study on the technical, regulatory, and marketing challenges. Here and here are articles weighing the pros and cons of cultured meat. This study concludes that the reduction in methane from not using cattle is more than offset over time by the carbon dioxide emitted from cultured meat production. Here is an in-depth article about how technical and economic barriers may prevent cultured meat from becoming affordable. Here is an article about how large agribusinesses are already dominating the cultured meat market. 3D bioprinting of meat has been developed recently by scientists and entrepreneurs. There is no regulatory framework in place to ensure these synthetic products are safe
Learn why animals are a key part of regenerative agriculture. (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus). The goal is to mimic the “graze-and-go” behavior of native herbivores with domesticated livestock. This supports the biological health of the soil, improves water cycling, reduces erosion, and can increase the amount of carbon that can be stored in rangeland soils (see Grazing Ecology Nexus and Animal Integration Nexus). Here is a book about regenerative farming with animals. If vegan or vegetarian, virtually all fruits, nuts, and vegetables are grown in the absence of animal integration.
Grow a garden. Get involved with preserving agrobiodiversity by planting a garden with heirloom crops. There are many resources. Here is an article from Mother Earth News about getting started. Hereis a list of heirloom vegetables. Here is an example of an heirloom seed company.
Donate to or join organizations that support food diversity. There are many choices, including seed banks and other community-based initiatives that preserve biodiversity (see Key Players).