Human nutrition as ecosystem service2

The concept of ecosystem services has been an implied, over-arching principle for the relationship between people and their environment for the entirety of human existence. However, ecosystem services only became explicit, defined and made popular as a result of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) (IAASTD, 2008) in the early 2000s.3 The MA grouped ecosystem services under four pillars: provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural. Food was listed as a provisioning ecosystem service. But with the acceleration of transfonnations in food supplies brought about by modem agricultural production, and the flow-on effects for human nutrition, a critical re-evaluation of provisioning ecosystem services seemed overdue, a decade after the MA was published. Meanwhile, another group of scientists was busy re-evaluating nutrition based on decades of failures, unintended consequences and collateral damage from policies, programmes and interventions (Latham, 2010). Central to this discussion was a fundamental question: what is the basic unit of nutrition (Burlingame, 2001, 2012): nutrients (as described in all basic nutrition textbooks), foods (Jacobs and Tapsell, 2007) or diets (Burlingame and Demini, 2012)?

The health sector used individual micronutrients as that basic unit. Malnutrition was a disease, and the treatment called for nutrition to be administered as vitamin A capsules, iron tablets, iodized salt and ready to use therapeutic formulations. The flaws in this model are manifold, the two most important being that a measured, single micronutrient deficiency almost invariably signals complete micronutrient inadequacy, not simply a deficiency of that measured nutrient; and the approach is largely unsustainable.

The agriculture sector used food, per se, as the basic unit, often expressed as the quantity of foods by weight and their dietary energy equivalent in kilocalories. Nutrition was administered, largely, as starchy staples coming from intensive, industrial monoculture agriculture. In many places, as much as 80% of the diet (dietary energy) came from not much more than refined rice, wheat or maize. Again, the flaws in this model, which has its origins in the Green Revolution, are manifold (Conway and Barbie, 1988; Smith, 1998; IAASTD, 2008). For nutrition, poor dietary quality in terms of micronutrients was one result, along with ever-rising levels of overweight and obesity. Furthermore, there was grave concern for the environment with this model of agriculture, with increasing damage to ecosystems and significant and ongoing biodiversity loss.

Considering the many decades of actions from both health and agriculture sectors to solve the problems of malnutrition, and the lack of sustainable, consistent success, a new model was needed. Perhaps ‘diet’ should be that basic unit of nutrition, but not simply diet, rather sustainable diet (Gussow and Clancy, 1986; Reddy et ah, 2009; Burlingame and Dernini, 2019). The rationale was that this approach, under an environmental sustainability banner, would bring together the health and agriculture sectors to address the multiple burdens of malnutrition, i.e. undernutrition, overweight/obesity, diet-related chronic diseases and most importantly, micronutrient deficiencies (Burlingame and Dernini, 2012).

This model necessitated different sectors coming together to explore common problems and issues. Interestingly, we can credit the environment sector for taking the initiative in formalising this model. Informally and incidentally, nutritionists have included environment sector issues in their research and practice. For example, food composition databases present nutrient data on food biodiversity (FAO, INFOODS, 2008, 2017). Food- based dietary guidelines sometimes include a recommendation to decrease environmental footprints by eating locally and consuming less meat, the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid being one such example (Dernini et ah, 2013). But it was the environment sector, with leadership from the CBD, that was first to acknowledge and operationalize the idea that multisectoral solutions were required in order to avert collateral damage in one sector caused by policies and programmes in another. In 2006, the Conference of the Parties, which is the governing body of the CBD, developed and endorsed the Cross-cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition (CBD, 2006). Table 2.2 shows the timeline.

The Cross-cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition included a set of operational objectives, which continue to be developed and promoted, and have found their way into the Sustainable Development Goals and other global





СОР 7 Decision VII/32: The programme of work of the Convention and the Millennium Development Goals (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 2004)

  • • Noting the linkage between biodiversity, food and nutrition, and the need to enhance sustainable use of biodiversity to combat hunger and malnutrition ...
  • • Requests ... a Cross-cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition to work together with relevant organizations, in order to strengthen existing initiatives on food and nutrition, enhance synergies and fully integrate biodiversity concerns into their work, with a view to the achievement of ... relevant Millennium Development Goals.


Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture 10th Regular Session (Rome, Italy, November 2004)

• ... requested how it could best support countries, on request, to generate, compile and disseminate cultivar- specific nutrient composition data, as well as indicate the relative priority of obtaining cultivar-specific dietary consumption data, in order to demonstrate the role of biodiversity in nutrition and food security.





Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) Recommendation X/9 (Bangkok, Thailand,

7-11 February 2005)

  • • Presented options for a Cross-anting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition
  • • Recommended elements for an international initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition. id= 10689

Intergovernmental Technical Working Group on Plant Genetic Resources 3rd Session (Rome, Italy, October 2005)

• to undertake the necessary consultations and bring forward options for consideration by the Conference of Parties at its Eighth Meeting for

a Cross-cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition within the CBD’s existing programme of work on agricultural biodiversity.

• 8 high priority actions fileadmin/templates/ a gphome/documents/PGR/ITWG/ ITWG3/p3w5E.pdf

COP 8 Decision VIII/23A Cross-cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition (Curitiba, Brazil, March 2006)

• Adopts the framework for a

Cross-cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition. id= 11037

COP 12 Decision XII/21: Biodiversity and human health (Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea, 6-17 October 2014)

Encourages parties and other governments to promote cooperation between sectors and agencies responsible for biodiversity and those responsible for human health;


Recognises the relevance of the Crosscutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition for the linkages among biodiversity, food, nutrition and human health.

СОР 14 Draft decision submitted Health and biodiversity (Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt,

17-29 November 2018)

  • • Acknowledging that consideration of health-biodiversity linkages can contribute to improving several aspects of human health and well-being, including through the prevention and reduction of both infectious and non- communicable diseases, and by supporting nutrition and healthy diets.
  • • To compile information ... on the design, management and implementation of production systems based on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and traditional knowledge and the corresponding benefits to nutrition and healthy diets, particularly, but not restricted to, vulnerable and marginalized sectors. lc/4f46/ a600bbe7338826cde2a93d8b/cop-14-1-04- en.pdf

  • • To substantiate the links between biodiversity, food and nutrition, in particular clarifying the relationship between biodiversity, dietary diversity and food preferences and the relevant links between human health and ecosystem health.
  • • To mainstream the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity into agendas, programmes and policies related to nutrition, health, agriculture and hunger and poverty reduction.
  • • To counter the loss of diversity in human diets, and in ecosystems, by conserving and promoting the wider use of biodiversity for food and nutrition.
  • • To raise awareness of the links between biodiversity, food and nutrition and the importance of biodiversity conservation to meeting health and development objectives, including the elimination of hunger.

Key partners in the Cross-cutting initiative on biodiversity for food and nutrition at the global level were FAO, WHO and Bioversity International from the CGIAR. FAO and Bioversity International immediately took up the challenge with enthusiasm and energy and with many initiatives and outputs. These included the work on biodiversity indicators for human nutrition (FAO/INFOODS/Bioversity International, 2008, 2010), biodiversity food composition databases (Charrondiere et ah,

2012) , the sustainable diets initiative (Burlingame and Demini, 2012), conferences and conference sessions, projects under the ‘Sustainable Food Systems Programme’ in the One Planet Network4 and the ongoing Global Environment Facility (GEF) supported ‘Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition’ (BFN) Project5 represented in this book and many other resources (Fanzo et ah, 2013).

In an important decision-making forum, the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), engaged with the Nutrition Division of FAO, requesting a paper addressing key issues in nutrition (FAO,

2013) . The report from the CGRFA states the following:

The Commission highlighted the importance of biodiversity for food and nutrition and noted that its potential role in nutrition is underexplored and undervalued. It welcomed the progress FAO had made in awareness raising and requested FAO to continue its leading role in the Cross- Cutting Initiative on Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition. The Commission appreciated that food biodiversity, in the context of the Initiative, regarded genetic resources, including neglected and underutilized species, and noted that improved information on their nutrient contents could facilitate new market opportunities. The Commission requested FAO to further develop its work on biodiversity and nutrition, recognizing the importance of linking food biodiversity and the environment sector to human nutrition and healthy diets, and of the concept that nutrients in food and whole diets, as well as food, should be explicitly regarded as ecosystem services.

CGRFA, 2013

Later, at its 15th Regular Session in January 2015, the CGRFA endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines for Mainstreaming Biodiversity into Policies, Programmes and National and Regional Plans of Action on Nutrition, with the aim of assisting countries to make the best use of biodiversity for food and agriculture in their nutrition programmes. The guidelines provide examples of how main- streaming could be implemented, depending on countries’ needs and capabilities, as appropriate. The Commission stressed that implementation should be based on scientific evidence and consistent with relevant international obligations and that ‘governments and stakeholders are encouraged, where appropriate, to implement these guidelines’ (CGRFA, 2015).

As new as it all seems, references and inferences for human nutrition as an ecosystem service can be found going back millennia in the writings and teachings of doctors and philosophers. If we look back nearly 150 years, we find one of the earliest university-level nutrition programmes, developed by Ellen Swallow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 19th century. A nutrition pioneer, Swallow called her subject Human Ecology. Fundamental to this course was the principle that human health and environmental health were linked, with food and nutrition being the connecting forces (Merchant, 2007).

Key features of ecosystems are their diversity. Efforts to define ‘healthy’ diets independently of their ecosystem can lead to the unintended consequence of exacerbating malnutrition (HLPE, 2017). Clear examples have been presented in case studies of indigenous food systems (Kuhnlein et ah, 2009, 2013). The report of the 2nd ‘International Conference on Sustainable Diets’ held in Mongolia in 2013 made the point explicitly in the context of human nutrition and livestock. Meat and dairy, largely from a local breed of horse feeding on local pasture species, are fundamental to diets of many Mongolians, and livestock are fundamental to the sustainability of the ecosystems. Thus, were Mongolia to heed the global calls to decrease or make more efficient livestock systems for dairy and meat, micronutrient malnutrition and disruption to the ecosystems would be a consequence. The conference unanimously endorsed the principle that for understanding and characterising sustainable diets, the context is the ecosystem; the ecosystem must provide the guidance, and that the essence of sustainable diets is an ecosystem approach (Burlingame, 2014b).

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