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. 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 foods provides 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.
- 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:
- The comprehensive EAT-Lancet Commission report (2019) makes a scientific case for a transformation in global diets, calling for a doubling of plant-based food consumption and 50 percent reduction in red meat consumption (with exceptions for livestock-based traditional cultures).
- In terms of its effect on climate change, where your food comes from is not as important as what you eat. Animal-based foods have higher carbon footprints than plant-based foods, with beef leading the way.
- The meat industry has employed tactics similar to the oil industry in denying its role in climate change and attacking critics.
- Grass-fed meat is a viable option for reduced meat consumption.
- Veggie burgers have been available for decades. These vegetarian burgers are made from grains, beans, seeds, nuts, onions, peas, tofu, potatoes, mushrooms, and other plants. Ingredients are combined - and then shaped to look like burger. You can do it at home. Here and here are lists of recipes. Here is an article about taste-testing veggie-burger brands available in grocery stores.
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 Burger use 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 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. Here is 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).
Indigenous and Traditional
Support efforts by Black, Indigenous, brown and other traditional communities to protect and renew their food cultures and diverse diets. Worldwide, a continuing legacy of poverty, discrimination, and cultural oppression has largely denied BIPOC people access to healthy and diverse food choices. In response, a global food justice movement is working to correct systemic inequities and remove barriers to diverse food.
- There has been a revival of Indigenous foods and traditional cooking methods, led by native farmers, educators, entrepreneurs, and social-media-savvy young chefs, focused on nutritionally dense, regionally appropriate plants, animals, and fish. Here is a study on the revival of Indigenous food systems in the American northwest. Here is a story about ancient food technologies being revived in Peru. Here is an example from Africa.
- The Reawakened Initiative is a call to action to defend agricultural biodiversity around the globe. Here is a story from the initiative about breadfruit in Costa Rica. Here is a story about tepiary beans in the Sonoran Desert. Here is a story about ancient grains in Ethiopia.
- There are many organizations focused on conservating native plants, seeds, and the traditional customs that go with them. One example is Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, whose mission is to conserve and promote arid-adapted crop diversity in support of sustainable farming and food security.
- Partnerships along Indigenous groups, governments, institutions, and organizations such as the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance help to reintroduce preserved diverse varieties of crops, creating platforms for the involvement of Indigenous knowledge.
- Tribal economic development programs, such as the First Nations Development Institute, are actively involved in reviving food diversity.
- There are many projects featuring smallholder farmers leading the way in preserving and reviving agrobiodiversity. Here is a story about Potato Park in the Andes Mountains of Peru.
- Food Tank spotlights sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty through food system change. Here is their list of twenty-seven organizations working to conserve seed diversity. Here is their list of seventeen Indigenous agricultural organizations. Here is their list of twenty-four food justice organizations.
Research neglected and underutilized species (NUS). Many NUS plants have not received much attention from scientists. Areas of research include nutritional value, genetic traits, resistance to disease, adaptability, resilience to extreme weather events, potential for agronomic improvement, and suitability for postharvest storage. Other research areas:
- Links between NUS and the cultural heritage and farming practices where there are grown or originate.
- A detailed understanding of the specific agroecological niches where these species grow, including documentation of associated plant species.
- The role these crops can play in restoring degraded land.
- The role their nutritional value might be able to play in alleviating food insecurity and providing livelihoods.
- Their potential medicinal properties or other uses.
- Their role in supporting ecosystem services, which are the essential services that nature provides to humans, such as food, clean water, pollination of crops, pollution removal, carbon sequestration, and recreational, cultural, and spiritual benefits. In particular, more data is needed about microorganisms.
- Landscape-scale assessments and monitoring in order to place these crops within a larger context of ecology, agriculture, and other factors.
Farmers and Distributors
Learn how to grow, use, store, and market diverse, nutritious plants. Crop diversity allows farmers to grow plants to fit particular environmental and weather conditions. Selecting species that grow to different heights and have different root systems and nutrient needs, for example, can help the farmers be proactive in responding to changing conditions.
- Perennial vegetables can produce a crop when annuals cannot, including edible leaves, and grow in a broader range of conditions, such as desert, aquatic, and shade-dominated environments. More than a third of perennial vegetables are woody species and are well suited to grow on marginal land or depleted soils.
- Distributors can help by providing linkages between farmers and markets and impacting supply chains for food companies. Connected Market helps producers sell their crops at a fair price, allowing companies to source the ingredients transparently and purchase food products aligned with their values.
- Crop Trust preserves diverse crop varieties while studying their genetic makeup and keeping records about their cultural heritage. Here is a story about a partnership between Crop Trust and the government of Norway to improve crop resilience and food security around the world, building on the success of the Crop Wild Relatives Project.
- Seeds vaults are critical. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway holds over a million samples from around the planet in cold storage. Smaller networks of seed banks are also vital and help preserve local landraces and varieties.
- Seed Savers Exchange foster connections among individual gardeners who are preserving more than twenty-five thousand heirloom vegetables and other crops in their own gardens.
Use business models that value crop diversity, particularly for smallholder farms, Indigenous peoples, and traditional food cultures. Companies should create products that embrace diverse crops, including neglected and underutilized species. The environmental and climate benefits of food diversity needs to be valued economically by corporations. In turn, this would incentivize farmers to grow more diverse crops. The commodity mindset of food companies needs to be replaced by business models that emphasize regeneration, resilience, transparency, and fairness.
- The Clif Bar company is creating products with nutritional diversity that originated in crop diversity on farms. For example, sweet sorghum has deep root systems that build soil. Other crops include yellow pea, sunflowers, and pumpkins for seeds.
- More consumers are demanding transparency in their food choices, including full traceability along supply chains back to food sources. Both can give companies a competitive advantage in the marketplace, particularly if customers develop brand loyalty.
- A Guide to Traceability by the UN details practical approaches to ensure sustainable global supply chains, including the ability to trace the history and distribution of products and confirm that human rights, safety, and environmental standards are being met.
Governments can support crop diversity through the food and agricultural policies they adopt, the financial and technical assistance they provide, and the scientific research they conduct. Governments at all levels have an important role to play in mainstreaming food diversity and making food systems resilient to climate change.
- Internationally, major agreements and policies can be enacted to support crop diversity. Examples include the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, managed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Nagoya Protocol on Access Benefit Sharing, both of which protect genetic varieties of plants and encourage diverse farming systems.
- At the national level, current agricultural policies need to change. They need to support small- and medium-scale farmers and emphasize crop diversity as key to creating resilient food systems.
- Policies and laws at all levels should foster a seed commons, built on active use and sharing of diverse seeds as well as principles of interdependence, complexity, human community, and the links between diverse knowledge and diverse physical environments.
- An Agrobiodiversity Index (based on twenty-two indicators) provides a monitoring framework to inform food systems policy.
Corporations that have been heavily involved in the industrial-scale processing, distribution, and marketing of meat, grain, and seed include:
JBS S.A., a Brazilian meatpacking corporation that is the world’s largest supplier of beef. The CEO is Gilberto Tomazoni. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone is 55 11 3144-7801.
Cargill, a family-owned agribusiness behemoth, is at the center of the global industrial production of soy, corn, and other commodities. The CEO of Cargill is David MacLennan. His email is email@example.com. His phone is (952) 742-4507.
Corteva is a major chemical and seed company. It was split off from DowDuPont, itself the product of a merger between DuPont and Dow Chemical Company, whose products have been used in industrial agriculture for decades. The CEO of Corteva is James C. Collins, Jr. His phone is 800-922-2368.
ADM is a major food commodities trader and supplier. The CEO is Juan Luciano. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org His phone is 312-634-8100.
Tyson Foods is a multinational food corporation and the second largest processor and marketer of beef, chicken, and pork in the world. The CEO is Donnie King. His email is unknown. His phone is 479-290-4000.
Smithfield Foods is a Chinese-owned food-processing corporation based in the United States and one of the largest pork producers in the world. The CEO is Shane Smith. His email is unknown. His phone is 757-365-3000.
Hormel Foods is a major manufacturer of processed meat-based food products. The CEO is Jim Snee. His email is email@example.com. His phone is 507-437-5611.
National Beef is a major U.S. beef processing corporation. The CEO is Tim Klein. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone is 800-449-2333.
Impossible Foods is the maker of Impossible Burger and other highly processed plant-based substances. The founder and CEO is Pat Brown. His email is email@example.com. His phone is 855-877-6365
Crop Trust works internationally to protect agricultural diversity.
CGIAR delivers critical science and innovation.
Livestock Conservancy protects endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.
Native Seed Network is a resource for people working to add native plants back into the landscape.
Cultural Conservancy is a native-led organization that works to restore Indigenous cultures and apply traditional knowledge.
Green America works along the supply chain from farmers to consumers.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) leads the UN’s effort to defeat hunger and achieve food security.
International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is a global authority on the status of the natural world.
USDA/Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) provides technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers in the United States.
Gary Nabhan is ethnobotanist, author, and activist for native foods and wild plants in the Sonoran desert.
Enrique Salmon is a scholar and native foods activist.
Lillian Hill, farmer and executive director of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance.
Shawn Adler is chef and owner of Pow Wow Café in Ontario, Canada.
John Boyd is a farmer and the founder of the National Black Farmers Association.
Sean Sherman is a Native American chef with a focus on revitalizing Indigenous food traditions.
Gather is a documentary about Native Americans reclaiming their spiritual, political, and cultural identities through food sovereignty.
Seeds of Freedom is a three-part documentary that tells the story of seed and its role in regenerative food systems around the world.
Beyond the Plate: Agrobiodiversity (2 mins)
The Race to Save Endangered Foods (5 mins)
Cultivating Equality in the Food System is a TEDx Talk by Danielle Nierenberg of Food Tank (14 mins)
Soul Fire Farm (9 mins)
Sioux Chef (3 mins)
Tending the Wild: Decolonizing the Diet (15 mins)
Food from the Radical Center, a presentation by Gary Nabhan (64 mins)
Food foraging videos on TikTok
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
The Nature of Crops: How We Came to Eat the Plants We Do by John Warren
Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi
Farming While Black by Leah Penniman
The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (2018 James Beard Award Winner)
The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved by Sandor Katz
Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in the Age of Climate Crisis by Vandana Shiva
Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier
Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets
Diet for the Small Planet (Fiftieth anniversary edition) by Francis Moore Lappe
Diet for a Hot Planet by Anna Lappe
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
An Onion in My Pocket: My Life with Vegetables by Deborah Madison
Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time by Craig LeHoullier
Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard
Defending Beef: A Case for Sustainable Meat Production by Nicolette Hahn Niman
Edible Wild Plants for Beginners by Althea Press
Ancient Agriculture: Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming (written in 1513 in Spain) by Gabriel De Herrera
Any book by Gary Nabhan
Bending the Curve: the Restorative Power of Plant-based Diets by the World Wildlife Fund
Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems by Bioversity International
The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
Toasted Sister is podcast about Native American food.
The Native Seed Pod is a podcast that explores native foodways.
Here are links to thirty-three different podcasts on food, nutrition, and justice provided by Food Tank.
Here are oral histories of native food revitalization.
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