James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

Getting Biodiverse About The Things We Eat

One of the big challenges for the 21st century is balancing our need to eat (and generate energy) whilst retaining enough land to conserve wildlife and biodiversity.

We Have to do Both

No matter how ‘green’ you are, when push comes to shove, you’re unlikely to put wildlife before your next meal.

But without wildlife – and all of the pollinators, predators, decomposers, habitat engineers and more – our very ability to feed ourselves begins to vanish.

That’s a problem that is far to big to solve in one blog post. Sorry! But here’s a start…

Our Diet is Boring

Just 15 crop plants, provide 90% of the world’s food energy intake. Just three – rice, maize and wheat – make up two-thirds of human food consumption. Compare this to our best guess of the number of wild plant species, about 400,000, and of these we think about 50,000 are edible.

Our Top 10 Foods

1. Maize

2. Rice

3. Wheat

4. Potatoes

5. Cassava

6. Soybeans

7. Sweat potatoes

8. Yams

9. Sorghum

10. Plantain

I’m being a little unfair. There’s very good reasons why we’ve stumbled upon some of these species and made the very best use of them. In fact, we’ve been selectively breeding them for years and we have some great GM technology to potentially improve them even further.

Before you choke on your cereal, remember, we have to eat and we have to preserve biodiversity; but we might be missing an opportunity.

A Biodiverse Dinner plate

A report recently published by Biodiversity International recently highlighted 778 underutilized cultivated food plants in South East Asia. There must be many more around the world.

Perhaps by increasing the variety of the foods we eat, we can not only increase the diversity of our agricultural landscape, but by reducing the abundance of our most common crops we might make it harder for pest and disease to take hold.


How do we make that shift? How can consumers drive this idea? I’m not sure, but here’s three weird sounding things I’d certainly like to try…

1. Paratungon (Salacca ramosiana) – A weird fruit that looks a bit like a strawberry meets a rambutan. Here’s another photo.

2. The Ackee (Blighia sapida) – Apparently quite widely used in Jamaica, and starting to be exported around the world. One minor detail is that if unripe, it can be particularly poisonous.

3. Guar or cluster bean (Cyamopsis tetragonoloba) – A nice green vegetable that would make a welcome change to runner beans. It’s been cultivated on a small scale for centuries, so long in fact that it has never been found in the wild.

Either way, it’s great to be as adventurous with what you eat, as you are in life; and this might just be one of the many tools we need to run a more sustainable planet.