Human Ecology

Food Biodiversity Challenges From a Global Perspective

Content Cover Image

Market in Barcelona. (By en:User:Daderot. (First uploaded to en:wiki on 5 Apr 2005.) via Wikimedia Commons)

Food history

Food collection or gathering has been an important part of human endeavors towards establishing civilization across the long history of human evolution. Humans have demonstrated their ingenuity in identifying and locating new and novel food sources located in their immediate surrounding and during their migration across the planet. Humans have become more successful than other species because of their better foraging abilities and coordinated group work in identifying and locating novel food sources over time. This trial and error approach has enabled humans over time to identify suitable food sources from their local environments. Over time, humans have identified more species that are edible or could be made edible using primitive to modern day recipes and cooking techniques. These long years of trial and errors have generated a wide range of food sources for different human populations distributed across the planet.

caption Source: Saikat Basu
Figure 1. Food biodiversity: 1. Rice (Oryza sativa L.); 2. Wheat (Triticum aestivum L.);
3. Oat flakes (Avena sativa L.); 4. Maize grains (Zea mays L.); 5. Lentil (Lens culinaris Medik)
 6. Golden gram (Vigna radiata (L.) R. Wilczek); 7. Chickpea (Cicer arietinum L.);
8. Hemp (Cannabis sp.) seed; 9. Almond (Prunus dulcis (Mill.) D.A. Webb) seed;
and 10. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) seed. 

Food is also a cultural aspect of many civilizations and societies. The species of animal or plant that are considered as important food sources in one corner of the planet may be treated as  ornamentals or as a religious symbols in another. Also, a plant species treated as vegetable in one section of a continent may be treated as fruit in another distant and isolated part of the same continent or region. Hence we see tremendous variability in the species of plants and animals as well as different microbes or microbially treated food products across across the world.  Even within the same society there is widespread variability of food sources and food species based on the religion, ethnicity, education, and economic status of the population.

caption Source: Saikat Basu
Figure 2. Food biodiversity: 1. Pabo catfish (Ompok pabo Hamilton);
2. Pabda catfish (Ompok pabda Hamilton); 3. Rohu (Labeo rohita Hamilton);
4. Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus (L.)); 5. Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus L.) drumsticks;
6. Pork (Sus scrofa domesticus Erxleben.); 7. Mutton (Ovis aries L.); 8. Chicken eggs;
9. Indian cheese; 10. Enoki Mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes (Curtis) Singer);
11. Sliced White Mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus (J.E.Lange) Imbach);
and 12. Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus (Jacq. ex Fr.) P.Kumm.).

Food preferences are guided by several socio-cultural and socioeconomic parameters.  Modern trade and commerce has now made it quite possible to enjoy food resources from other corners of the world that were previously unknown or unavailable.

caption Source: Ratnabali Sengupta
Figure 3. Food biodiversity: 1. Edible jelly seeds of Asian Palmyra Palm (Borassus flabellifer L.)
2. Fruits of Asian Palmyra Palm; 3. Musambi (Citrus limetta Risso); 4. Banana (Musa sp.);
5. & 6. Grapes (Vitis vinifera L.); 7. Plum (Prunus sp.); 8. Green apple (Malus domestica);
9. Dragon fruit (Hylocereus sp.); and 9. Sweet oranges (Citrus × sinensis (L.) Osbek). 

Food Biodiversity

Food biodiversity encompasses the wide diversity of species of plants and animals, or their corresponding parts or products, being used as food sources for healthy living and sustenance in different corners of the globe (Table 1). Food biodiversity of a particular culture or society and region has  evolved over time through the painstaking process of trial and error. The modernization of agriculture as well as the fruits of industrial revolution have increased the accessibility and availability of several species of plants and animals as easy, cheap, and sustainable food sources for substantially big parts of populations across different continents.  However significant parts of developing countries with unstable political and socioeconomic environments suffer from periodic outbreaks of food shortages or scarcities and food crisis issues. 

caption Source: Saikat Basu
Figure 4. Food biodiversity: 1. Cabbage (Brassica oleracea L.); 2. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.);
3. Yam (Dioscorea sp.); 4. Egg plant (Solanum melongena L.);
5. Celerey (Apium graveolens var. dulce (Mill.) DC.); 6-7. Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus L.);
8. Squash (Cucurbita argyrosperma K. Koch); 9. Zucchini (Cucurbita pepo L.);
10. Plantain (Musa × paradisiaca L.); 11. Potato (Solanum tuberosum L.);
and 12. Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.). 


(Source: Saikat Basu, own work)
(Source: Saikat Basu, own work)
(Source: Saikat Basu, own work)

(Source: Saikat Basu, own work)

(Source: Saikat Basu, own work)

(Source: Saikat Basu, own work)

(Source: Saikat Basu, own work)

(Source: Saikat Basu, own work)


Changes to our life styles, harmful environmental pollution, rapid deforestation, large scale expansion of agriculture and industries, population explosion, dissemination of pathogens causing a wide variety of diseases, and non-judicious exploitation of natural food resource species with no long term sustainable planning has resulted in an alarming decrease in food biodiversity resources in different parts of the world (Sengupta and Basu, 2013). Preferences towards fast food and processed food items in our fast-travelling world have shifted many people from their traditional food preferences towards the former. Food biodiversity in different parts of the globe has developed over long periods of  time. Unfortunately, slow but steady discarding of  species from our food preferences has decreased our ability to eat balanced diets and maked us more attracted towards food on market shelves of the glamorous shopping malls and food franchise chains.

   caption Source: Saikat Basu
Figure 5. Food biodiversity (Standard breakfast food sources): 1. Rice cake (Oryza sativa L.);
2. Low fat, high fiber whole wheat biscuit; 3. Wheat noodles; 4. Rice noodles (Oryza sativa L.);
 5. Enoki Mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes (Curtis) Singer);
6. Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus L.) egg yolk; 7. Roasted chicken with vegetables;
8. Rice noodle with eggs, fine goat meat slices (Capra aegagrus hircus L.) and vegetables;
9. 12-whole grain cereals with eggs, bacon (Sus scrofa domesticus Erxleben.) and vegetables;
10. Wheat based desserts; 11. Cheese cake; and 12. Fruit dessert-Figs (Ficus carica L.).

In addition, several native and local species used as food sources have become endangered or gone extinct due to non-judicious harvesting and over exploitation. As a result, we are not only losing valuable species of plants and animals that have traditionally served as important food sources for centuries, but we are also damaging the local ecosystem and environments in which these species have thrived which can potentially limit our food resource base in the future.  Although the impact is widespread across the planet,  the largest impacts occur in the tropics and sub-tropics where highest species biodiversity are found. Economic and political instability in these regions  results in heavier exploitation of available food species resources for sustenance without long term planning and judicious use of available food resources. The loss of local food species from the diet is a major hindrance towards quality health. These food species are cheap, easy to access, affordable, traditional part of regular balanced diet and important source of sustenance and nutrition. In several economically under-developed regions of our planet such food sources are thus the key to the necessary nutritional availability to the resident populations. Loss of such species in these regions could mean long term impact on the health prospect of people from lower income groups particularly the infants, young girls, pregnant women, nursing mothers and senior citizens.

caption Source: William Cetzal-Ix
Figure 6. 1. Purple cabbage; Food Biodiversity; 2. Jalapeno pepper (Capsicum annuum L.);
3. Sweet pepper (C. annuum); 4. Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus L.);
5. Guero or banana pepper (C. annuum); 6. Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea L.);
7. Carrot (Daucus carota L.); 8. Papaya (Carica papaya L.); and 9. Pimento (C. annuum).


Recently organic production of several vegetables and other food species has become quite popular as the products are produced mostly free of any agro-chemicals. Organic food is produced using environmentally and animal friendly farming methods in special organic farms. Organic farming maintains better health and is less intrusive to local environment as it depends on the use of manure and different biofertilizers, biopesticides, and crop rotation approaches. Instead of using artificial fertilizers, farmers develop fertile soil by rotating crops and using compost as manure. Organic foods, particularly raw or non-processed, contain higher levels of essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals. Organic cattle have demonstrated to contain higher level of antioxidants than normal milk. In addition, the system is considered to be quite environment-friendly and believed to be less aggressive with respect to negatively impacting several local target and non-target species and hence has some potential with respect to reducing severe dependence on locally harvested food species or forest based food species for sustenance.

caption Source: William Cetzal-Ix
Figure 7. Food Biodiversity: 1. Watermelon (Citrullus lanatus (Thunb.) Matsum. & Nakai);
2. Red bell pepper (Capsicum annuum L.); 3. Yellow bell pepper (C. annuum);
4. Orange bell pepper (C. annuum); 5. Mayan Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo L.);
6-7. Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam.); 8. Red Onion (Allium cepa L.);
and 9. Melon (Cucumis sp.). 

Increasing the production of food crops grown year round in a greenhouse has turned into a viable alternative in most developed nations. Moreover, several growers from developed nations have successfully integrated hybrid organic-greenhouse production systems to provide chemical-free quality food products throughout the year. Such production systems have become quite popular from the perspectives of market potential as well as environment-friendliness because they are less intensive and non-interfering to local ecosystems. Such sustainable long-term plans may reduce the dependence on naturally harvested food species and may thereby also contribute to conserving many species. However, the cost of producing food via these systems may be greater than locally field-grown food. Furthermore, the economics of implementing these production strategies in developing  countries has limited application and adoption in food production system across the planet.

caption Source: Saikat Basu & Peiman Zandi
Figure 8. Food Biodiversity (Cereals): 1. Wheat (Triticum aestivum); 2. Oats (Avena sativa L.)
3. Barley (Hordeum vulgare L.); Rice-4. Unhulled brown rice (Oryza sativa L.)-long grained;
5. White polished rice-long grained; 6. Rice-short grained; 7. Maize grains (Zea mays L.);
Millets-8. Jowar (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench); 9. Bajra (Pennisetum glaucum (L.) R. Br.);
and 10. Ragi (Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.). 

Under these circumstances, the best possible solution possibly lies with the judicious use of the available food species resources.  Species should be harvested with proper time for regeneration and care should be taken to allow for the replenishment of natural stocks. Harvesting limits must be imposed for those species whose populations have dropped below their critical numbers in their natural habitat. Proper education and training will be an important factor to help people to make judicious choices and sustainable practices as part of the daily routine for their long term sustenance with respect to protecting food biodiversity.

caption Source: Saikat Basu
Figure 9. Food Biodiversity (Organic productions): 1. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.);
2. White Onion (Allium cepa L.); 3. Apple (Malus domestica Borkh.);
4. Mandarin Oranges (Citrus reticulate Blanco); 5. Chilli pepper (Capsicum sp.);
6. Potato (Solanum tuberosum L.); 7. Tea (Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze);
8. Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.); 9. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare Mill.);
10. Coriander (Coriandrum sativum L.); and 11. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum (Mill.) Fuss).


caption Source: Saikat Basu
Figure 10. Food Biodiversity (Greenhouse productions): 1. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa L.);
2. Tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.); 3. Red Bell pepper (Capsicum annuum L.);
4.-5. Zucchini (Cucurbita pepo L.); and 6. Egg plant (Solanum melongena L.).

World Food Day is celebrated every year on October 16th around the world to celebrate the issues of food-self sufficiency, food security, food freedom and food independence against challenges of food scarcity and food depletion around the globe. It is also important now to include the challenges of food biodiversity as an important concern with respect to food security across the world with particular emphasis on developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. People representing lower income strata of the urban and rural areas from developing countries are grossly dependent on the food biodiversity as an important source of quality nutrition and balanced diet for their long term sustenance. Several marginal populations such as forest residents, fringe dwellers, aboriginal and tribal communities living in remote corners of exotic landscapes, and under developed economic zones from less known, isolated islands, deserts, mountains or desert regions, forests and sparsely populated grassy plains are heavily dependent on their locally available food resources.  Loss of food biodiversity in these regions means long term damages to the quantity and quality of their daily nutrition levels impacting their health and livelihood. Hence, global loss of food biodiversity is more serious for such communities than anyone else. It is important therefore to plan, conserve and protect eroded food biodiversity status in different corners of our planet to combat such long term serious consequences to human health and nutrition.

Figure 11. Food biodiversity of local markets in Mexico: 1. Sapote fruit (Manilkara zapota (L.) P. Royen); 2. Melon (Cucumis melo L.); 3. Mango (Mangifera indica L.);
4. Pomegranate (Punica granatum L.); and 5. Local market in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, southern Mexico.


caption (Source: Ratnabali Sengupta and Saikat Basu)

Figure 12. Food biodiversity at local and regional markets and production areas. 1. Fishes being sold at the local market of New Barrackpore, North 24 Parganas, WB, India; 2. Dried and salted fish in the rural market of Basanti, South 24 Parganas, WB, India; 3. Fresh caught crabs in a local rural market of Canning, South 24 Parganas, WB, India; 4. Chicken eggs with different colored shells in a shopping mall at Edmonton, AB, Canada; 5-7. Different colored sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum L.), available at local markets and production centers in Lethbridge, AB, Canada; 8. Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam) sold at specialized store for African food products at Lethbridge, AB, Canada; 9. Strawberries (Fragaria × ananassa Duchesne) sold at the local roadside makeshift market of Bidhannangar Municipality, Kolkata, WB, India; 10. Tamarind (Tamarindus indica L.); 11. Bitter gourd (Momordica charantia L.); and 12. Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus (L.) Moench) plantations at Howrah,WB, India; 13. Seeds of Areca nut palm (Areca catechu L.). Seeds when chewed are partly addictive and usually taken along with fresh and green betle leaves (Piper longum L.); 14. Pomelo (Citrus maxima Merr.); 15. Eggplant (Solanum melongena L.); 16. Coriander (Coriandrum sativum L.) seedlings growing at North 24 Parganas, WB, India. Leaves are used as flavoring and garnishing agent in East Indian cuisines and seeds are used as spices; 17. Chili pepper (Capsicum frutescens L.) under cultivation in North 24 Parganas, WB, India; and 18. Potato plants (Solanum tuberosum L.) plants under greenhouse production in Lethbridge, AB, Canada.



caption (Source: Saikat Basu)
Figure 13: Food markets across the world showing wide diversity of edible species. 1. Fruit shop at North 24 Parganas, WB, India (Courtesy: Alok Das); 2.  Large variety of various dairy products of a grocery store in downtown Vancouver, BC, Canada (Courtesy: Soumyadeep Bose); 3. Community vegetable market at Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, P.R. China (Courtesy: Xiuhua Wu); 4. Street market in Santa fé de Antioquita, Colombia (Courtesy: Eliana Noguera-Savelli); 5-6. Street side food vendors at Merida, Yucatan, Mexico (Courtesy: William Cetzal-Ix); 7-8. Grocery store at Numazu city, Shizuoka, Japan (Courtesy: Sukrishna Ishii); 9. Commercial food market at Peshawar, KP, Pakistan (Courtesy: Muhammad Aziam Khan); 10. Super market of Moscow, Russia (Courtesy: Olga Osdachuk); 11.  Local market and 12. Super market at Bangkok, Thailand (Courtesy: Chiitiwat Silapat)


caption (Source: Peiman Zandi)
Figure 14. Food markets across the world showing wide diversity of edible species. 1. Grocery store at Tiblisi, Georgia; 2. Local community market at Syria, Damascus; 3. Grocery store at Yerevan, Armenia; 4-5. Grocery store at Istanbul, Turkey; 6. Grocery store at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and 7-9. Community markets at the Rasht City, Guilan Province, Northern Iran.


caption Source: Saikat Basu & Ratnabali Sengupta
Figure 15. Food biodiversity: 1-4. Sweet orange (Citrus × sinensis (L.) Osbeck)); cultivars;
5-6. Sweet lime (Citrus limetta Risso);7. Pomelo (Citrus maxima Merr.); 8. Wood apple
(Aegle marmelos (L.) Corrêa)); 9. Sapodilla (Manilkara zapota (L.) P. Royen); 10-11.
Pomegranate (Punica granatum L.); 12. Starfruit (Averhoa carambola L.); 13-16. Hyacinth
bean (Lablab purpureus(L.) Sweet)) cultivars; and 17. Indian olive
(Olea europaea subsp. cuspidata (Wall. ex G. Don) Cif.)).


caption Source: Saikat Basu, own work
Figure 16. 1. Brown shelled chicken eggs; 2. White shelled chicken eggs; 3. Chicken; 4. Pork; 5. Fenugreek seedlings (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.); 6. Lettuce seedlings (Lactuca sativa L.); 7. Pear (Pyrus sp.); 8. Squash (Cucurbita sp.): 9. Zucchini (Cucurbita pepo L.); 10. Garlic (Allium sativum L.); 11. Onion (Alium cepa L.); 12. Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix DC); 13. Mango (Mangifera indica L.);14. Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.); and 15. Enoki Mushroom (Flammulina velutipes (Curtis) Singer)).


References and Further Reading

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  • 6. Rahman AK (2005) - Freshwater Fishes of Bangladesh., 2nd Ed. The Zoological Society of Bangladesh, University of Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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  • 8. Sarkar UK, Singh AK, Jena JK (2011) Biodiversity of the freshwater fishes in the protected forest areas of Uttar Pradesh and its significant in management of riverin fish diversity. In: Forest biodiversity: earth’s living treasure, Indian national conference,22th May , 2011, India.
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Basu, S., Sengupta, R., Zandi, P., & Cetzal-Ix, W. (2014). Food Biodiversity Challenges From a Global Perspective. Retrieved from


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