Have a colourful plate

April 29th 2014

Duncan Williamson

Duncan Williamson

The old adage ‘variety is the spice of live’, at first appearance seems to be alive and well in our food system. When I pop down to the local shop there is a mind boggling array of cereals, crisps, ready meals and “foodie favourites”. There are meals and cooking sauces from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Morocco and Italy. There are more flavours and variety of snacks than ever before. Every year there is a new super food we must eat. Add to this the TV chefs, every magazine stuffed with recipes and countless blogs and web pages written by and for foodies. We really do live in an age of plenty and variety.

Or do we? It turns out is might well be a bit of a myth. The stark reality is we are eating from a smaller range of ingredients than ever before. Our meal choices don’t change much. We are often eating the same fruit, veg and the same cuts of meat. Take the ubiquitous chicken, increasingly it seems all people want is a sumptuous chicken breast or a spicy hit wing, the rest is dead to us.

According to the excellent ‘Dabble with your dinner’ most people only cook nine meals. Look at how we treat vegetarians. Go to a restaurant – it may be the most amazing gastro pub – or invite a veggie round for dinner and the veggie option with be pasta or risotto, either because we think veggies are hard to cook for or we have forgotten how to use food and flavours properly.  This is happening whilst most meat eaters only eat three or four types of meat – chicken, pig, cow and sometimes lamb – and often the same cuts or the left over bits reformulated into burgers, sausages with added sugar, salt, rusk and flavourings.

We have moved to a situation where we no longer experiment with food. Those beloved cooking sauces and ready meals are primarily made up of the same ingredients with a few spices and herbs and other flavourings added. Pick up a Chinese or Thai cooking source, I bet the first or second ingredient is sugar. We have fallen out of love with variety whilst claiming to undergo a food revolution.

In recent years the variety of crops and livestock grown has shrunk, this has dwindling dietary diversity and pushed some species to the edge of extinction. Thirty percent of the world’s livestock breeds are at risk of extinction[1],[2].  The process of simplifying agriculture has led to a situation where around 20 foods make up 80 percent of staple foods[3].  These include wheat, barley, maize, cassava, yams, potatoes, sweet potato, sorghum, rice, millet and rye.  Modern intensive agriculture has not only lead to this narrowing but is predicated on it[4]. This has resulted in genetic erosion in agricultural and livestock biodiversity. A significant driver of genetic erosion is the replacement of local varieties by high yielding varieties or species.

The three most grown crops are: 1. Soy; 2. Sugar; 3 Palm Oil. None of these are essential in our diets; in the case of sugar is not needed, whilst soy is mainly grown to feed our livestock.

Agricultural intensification as it is currently practiced possesses a significant risk to biodiversity, and will not meet the needs of the 21st century, especially when seen in relation to climate change and water scarcity. A large-scale based single dominant crop is vulnerable to disease and pests, as can be seen with the banana. In 1950 the world’s banana crop was almost whipped out by the Panama Disease, due to it being based on a single dominant species. Currently most bananas are the Cavendish, which is shown to be susceptible to Panama Disease, and infections have been found in South East Asia and Australia.

There are over 30,000 edible plants yet we have chosen to limit ourselves to a small handful. We have fallen out of love with veg – we now see it as valueless, say it lacks taste, it is boring – so we eat-less of it, a smaller variety – pepper, carrot and butternut squash anyone?  When people say they don’t like veg it is probably because it has been cooked badly, they have fallen for the rubbish that veg is bland or they have only eaten one or two types.

Beyond veg, why are people so nervous about eating different types of animal, or at the very least trying different cuts of meat?

There is a world of exciting tastes and textures out there, which can lead to a varied, healthy and sustainable diet. The only limits we set ourselves, ask you retailer for variety, try new things, grow new foods. Let’s try to get out of our food rut and enjoy food.


Duncan Williamson

Food Policy Manager – WWF-UK

[1] Drucker, A, G. et al (2001) “The Economic Valuation of Farm Animal Genetic Rsources: A Survey of Available Methods”

[2] FAO (1997) “Human Nature: Agricultural Biodiversity and Farm-based Food Security” https://www.fao.org/sd/epdirect/epre0042.htm

[3] Prescott-Allen, R and Prescot-Allen, C (1990) “How many plants feed the world?” Conservation Biology , vol 4, pp 365-374

[4] Frison, E.A et al (2011) “Agricultural biodiversity is essential for a sustainable improvement in food and nutrition security”, Sustainability 2011, vol 3, pp.238-253

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