15 March 2019

"The easiest way to help students appreciate biodiversity is from the perspective of the kitchen", says Professor Reid at the Culinary Institute of America

Taylor Reid, Assistant Professor of Applied Food Studies at the Culinary Institute of America, bases his research interests in beginning farmers, small farm development, chef-community relationships, and the gathering and use of wild foraged food products. Dr. Reid wrote the following article for UNAI about the UN Food and Agriculture Organization´ (FAO) latest report titled "State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture."

Biodiversity is the basis for productive agriculture and underpins the entire world food system. It provides essential ecosystem services for all of the earth’s inhabitants, and is intricately connected to the healthy functioning of the global economy. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s recent State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture Report makes clear the extent to which biodiversity is currently under threat, and the dire impacts that biodiversity loss may have on all of us. It finds that 26 percent of local livestock breeds face the risk of extinction, that at least 24 percent of wild food species are declining, and that many supporting species including birds, bats, insects, and soil microorganisms are also under threat. The Report concludes by making recommendations for further action.

A clear understanding of the steps we need to take to protect biodiversity is essential, but prioritizing these steps has been a challenge. In the developed world most people have become so disconnected from food production that the value of agricultural biodiversity is no longer intuitive. How do we help people connect to the idea that biodiversity is important and worth addressing? My students are astounded when they hear the story of Russian scientists who starved to death protecting seeds during the Siege of Leningrad, rather than using them as food. Historical events like this can help us understand the value of biodiversity, but they do not force us to confront its importance in our own lives today.

At the Culinary Institute of America, I have found that the easiest way to help students appreciate biodiversity is from the perspective of the kitchen. Upon learning that there are 3,800 varieties of potatoes in Peru, they immediately become intrigued by the culinary possibilities. Agricultural biodiversity is the raw material of all our great meals. It is the foundation of creativity and flavor in our best restaurants. Can we parlay the growing global interest in culinary arts into a renewed appreciation for biodiversity? Celebrity chefs like Ferran Adria, Michel Nischan, Rene Redzepi, Alex Atala, Virgilio Martinez and others are already involved in efforts to do just that. They consistently highlight the value of biodiversity both on the plate and through their activism. Institutional programs such as the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance and Food Forever’s 2020 for 2020 campaign have also been important in developing programs and messaging focused on protecting and valuing agricultural biodiversity by connecting it to our culinary values.

Engaging people in developed countries with the value of biodiversity is important. We need to remain mindful, however, that the disproportionate burden for preserving biological diversity rests with the world’s poorest nations. The parts of the globe with the richest biodiversity tend to be poorer economically, making protection of these resources more complex. Agricultural biodiversity may have obvious value to subsistence farmers, but its preservation sometimes conflicts with development projects and food security initiatives. Those of us in wealthy nations must learn to recognize that our own models for development, especially of agriculture, may not be the best fit for many growing countries. The FAO Report identifies land use changes as the leading cause of biodiversity loss. In many cases these changes are a direct result of the current agricultural development paradigm. If retaining biodiversity is to be a goal, then promoting the legitimacy and growth of alternative agricultural systems is crucial. Sustainable and organic farming systems that are based on practices like crop rotation, biological control of pests, and efficient waste recycling tend to value and preserve biodiversity. They are also less expensive, less energy intensive, and limit water contamination and soil degradation. Models for development focused on these kinds of practices are emerging in places like Tanzania and Costa Rica, and may be replicable in other places as well.

The issues surrounding the protection of biodiversity are complicated. There are no easy fixes, but understanding the current context is a very good place to start thinking about repair and rejuvenation. The release of the FAO Report is encouraging because it has begun to foster an expanding dialog about these issues.