Regional food diversity and human health Conference Paper uri icon


  • Regions are significant for the way we understand and strategize food for health and economic development. They generally represent various food cultures and opportunities for food exchange based on proximity, historical linkages and complementarities. The example of North and West Africa represents an intersection of some of the most original of human eating experiences out of Africa and the enrichment of these by Arab traders, through the exchange of products, ideas, observations, beliefs and technologies. All of these will have encouraged diversity in food intake. However food diversity and, with it, biodiversity may not always have been recognized as important, and, therefore, secured and protected. Ultimately, food diversity cannot be sustained unless the food chain and the technologies to support it are environmentally appropriate. Cooking, without renewable energy sources, is a critical example. Additionally, human settlement has always required an adequate, a dependable and a safe water supply, although this same settlement tends to compromise these water characteristics. Water is a major factor in food diversity, whether as a source of aquatic food, or the basis of food production and preparation. The extent to which food diversity for human health is required will depend on the food component (essential nutrient and phytochemical) density of the foods represented. For example, fish, fresh lean meat, eggs and seed foods (grains, pulses, nuts) will reduce the requirement. Regional food diversity can support food diversity at the community level--where otherwise it might be fragile--by shared learning experiences, and by trade. Diversity can also be captured and enshrined in recipes with composite ingredients and by traditional emblematic foods--like soups and pies; and it provides the basis for food culture and cuisine. The evidence for food diversity (or variety) as a major factor in health has grown substantially over the last few years--as integrative indices of health like "maternal nutrition" and "successful pregnancy" (for example, through the inclusion of a variety of food sources of folate, increasing the bioavailability of iron, and the sustainable intakes of quality food protein and essential fatty acids); "adult mortality rates"; other "specific disease incidences" (like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and bone health) for "risk factors for disease" (like hypertension and abdominal fatness); and for "wellbeing" (palatable, enjoying and neurologically relevant food stuffs). Thus, there is an ongoing need to promote and maintain food diversity at the regional level and between communities.

publication date

  • December 1, 2003