“Western man has made more difference to his diet in the last six generations than during the previous 40,000 generations.” 

Denis Burkitt, British public health pioneer. (H/T: Food Planet Prize)

Think about the last three meals you ate. 

If you’re like the rest of the world, you get most (a whopping 60%!) of your nutrients from just rice, wheat, or maize. These staples are so ubiquitous today that it’s hard to imagine a satisfying meal without them. 

Over the past fifty years, a ‘global standard diet’ has been replacing traditional diets rooted in food and farming systems shaped by natural systems and ancient wisdom through millennia.

But why is this homogenization of the diet a problem? What impact does this have on our health, the planet, and our combined future? In the next two posts, we look at the impact of this lack of diversity in our consumption behavior, what it means for our health, the wellbeing of our communities, and the planet’s health, and how we can do our bit to be part of the solution.

Resilience and diversity: Pillars of a healthy and fulfilling life 

“A good half of the art of living is resilience.”

― Alain de Botton

Ask anyone what makes for a ‘full and fulfilling life and you’ll hear mentions of different people, places, ideas, and mostly, varied and different experiences. This exposure is what builds the resilience we need to go and grow through life’s experiences and challenges.

To put it simply, diversity in emotions, situations, and experience is the only way to build the resilience that equips us to live ‘fuller’ and holistic lives.

It’s the same that can be said of our relationship with food. It’s the diversity on our plate that helps us build the resilience or immunity our bodies need.

Nearly 70% of our immune system is in the gut. Our gut bacteria (microbiome) play a very important role in our health. The rapidly declining diversity on our plate is shrinking the diversity of the bacteria living in our guts. By doing so, we are stunting our immune functions and depriving our bodies of opportunities to build resilient gut and immune systems.

Our modern-day diet is a huge contributor to the increase in chronic diseases and lifestyle disorders. The level of dependence we have on staples, easy to miss under the garb of comfort and convenience, is the reason we’re depriving our bodies of the resilience-building they need. 

But this is just part of the bigger problem. 

More than just your health; Diversity is the lifeblood of our planet 

The rampant homogenization of the global diet has repercussions that go beyond our health to the health of the planet. We are at the risk of losing precious nutritional, soil-forgiving, drought-tolerant crops as we continue to rely on a handful of industrialized crops to serve up the majority of demand for global food production.

Most worryingly, we risk eliminating the biodiversity in our fields. In the last century alone, 75% of the genetic diversity of our crops has been wiped out to serve this global demand thanks to the widespread industrialization of farming. These genetically unique varieties of crops owe their existence to 3000 million years of biological evolution and careful selection and nurturing by our farming ancestors over 12000 years. The genetic resources of plants hold the key to increasing food security and improving the human condition. As this genetic diversity erodes, we risk losing our capacity to respond to changing conditions. 

From a resilience standpoint, it’s scary to see how dependent we are on these staples. What, then, would we do if anything were to happen to these plant species? 

The results of a 50-year study state the scaringly obvious: changing food patterns will lead to rising global food insecurity. The homogeneous global food diet we have today is making agriculture more vulnerable to drought, pests, and diseases, issues that will only be exacerbated by climate change,

Our food systems are broken. And it’s our fault too.

“The food system that we have built over the last century has become a dead end.”

This isn’t something that a fledgling startup like us is saying. These were the exact words used by 20 of the biggest food businesses in the world that service over 100 countries at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit before adding how “ … we have created a food system that has focused on economies of scale and simple solutions, but it’s over-simplistic now. We have a complete loss of diversity… “

Today’s industrial agricultural practices – driven by our demand for staples – rely on using heavy machinery to plow the soil, growing a single species of plants over a large area, and leaving the soil depleted and crops vulnerable to pests, disease, and weather. 

And all of us are to blame. 

Our disproportionate demand for dominant staples is causing a dwindling demand for more diverse crops. And with the disappearance of these crops, we are losing traditional food cultures, the farming systems, seeds, and skills that underpin them. Thanks to our growing appetite for staples, we are wiping off the cultural practices steeped in the ancient wisdom of our ancestors. 

Every little bit matters: Svaa Haa, a step in the right direction

Averting the biodiversity crisis depends on each one of us doing our bit to help fix it.

Biodiversity starts in the distant past and points toward the future. - Frans Lanting

On my journey to building Svaa Haa, the wisdom of these words is what keeps me going. 

At Svaa Haa, we believe that our food should nourish us and heal the planet.  Through our products, we want to do our best to help build resilience in our eating habits, and through our business model, be part of the solution i.e. fostering biodiversity by building resilient food and farming systems. 

In the next post, we look at how by honoring our time-tested ancient wisdom, we can build resilience not just in our gut and immune systems, but in our soil and farming systems to do our bit for stronger yet kinder food and farming systems.