16 Oct 2017 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Biodiversity for a world without hunger

World Food Day on 16 October is an opportunity to reflect on how healthy ecosystems can help to reduce the number of people who don’t have enough to eat.

Food security is notoriously complex. It is more about world politics, trade, infrastructure and economics, than food waste or meat-eating, important as these elements are.

But food security is also about healthy ecosystems and our ability to maintain the planet’s biodiversity. For instance, without bees and other pollinating insects, we would struggle to get enough to eat – and pollinators’ numbers are already declining around the world.

At the same time, after several years of decline, the number of chronically undernourished people increased in 2016, rising to 815 million, up from 777 million the year before. This recent uptick could signal a worrying reversal of trends – putting the 2030 goal of a world without hunger even further from reach. 

Experts say that a return to traditional food values could be part of the solution.

A selection of foods, herbs and spices grown in Sri Lanka ©: Amila Tennakoon


“We need to explore the nutritional value, cultural significance and market success of traditional foods for everyday diets,” says Marieta Sakalian, a UN Environment biodiversity expert. “Preserving local edible biodiversity, the lifeblood of what we eat, is in line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and essential if we want to feed the world’s growing population in a sustainable, healthy and environmentally sound manner.”

Sakalian is part of a project that is working in Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey to conserve and revive nutritious traditional edible biodiversity, and include it in diets for better health. The project also seeks to explore the nutritional value, cultural significance and market success of traditional foods for everyday diets.

The project, Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition (BFN), is led jointly by UN Environment and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and coordinated by Bioversity International, with financial support from the Global Environment Facility. National partners come from relevant ministries, the scientific community, non-government organizations, civil society and local communities.

Sri Lanka vegetable stand ©: Christopher

The BFN project is having an impact, for example, in Busia, western Kenya, where it has been raising awareness of the importance of local crops in the hope that people will begin to change their attitudes and consume more locally grown food.

The BFN team discovered that locally grown traditional vegetables had a poor image. People saw local crops as food for the poor or the elderly. They were thought to be bitter and difficult to prepare.

Anastancia Muleka, a mother of four, used to eat local vegetables only when her mother-in-law prepared them for her and her family. When her mother-in-law died in 2010, Anastancia stopped eating local vegetables entirely. But when she met members of BFN, she became convinced of their importance. BFN showed her how to plant and prepare local vegetables, and provided her with information about their nutritional value.

Anastancia began growing such crops and found that by doing so, she was able to save money. Her children began to like the vegetables, and it was not long before local crops became a staple of her family’s diet. “Frequent consumption of local vegetables has helped my skin to be smooth. I don’t get sores any more,” she said.

In Sri Lanka, the BFN project has organized a food festival to mark World Food Day. On 16 October the Plant Genetic Resources Centre in the country’s Central Province, will host an exhibition of local food diversity. There will be cooking prizes for the most innovative and tasty dishes, and discussions on BFN with experts. The event is being organized in partnership with the Women’s Agriculture Extension Unit, the Department of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment.

Myristica fragans nut, Sri Lanka  ©: Ji-Elle


The theme for this year’s World Food Day on 16 October is: Change the future of migration. Invest in food security and rural development.

For further information: Marieta.Sakalian[at]unep.org

Media enquiries: unepnewsdesk[at]unep.org