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Three-quarters of the world's food supply comes from just 12 crops and five animal species. At a conference in Paris, advocates said relying on a small range of foods is bad for humans and bad for the planet. So two unlikely partners have launched a campaign to get people to change the way they eat. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: David Edwards (ph) of the World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, is concerned about animal conservation. And he says global farming is the biggest driver of habitat loss and species collapse.
DAVID EDWARDS: We have a 60 percent decline in wildlife populations since 1970 - the last 50 years - within a lifetime. Nature can't continue to take this pressure. The food system has pushed wildlife to the extreme margins.
BEARDSLEY: Edwards says the focus on so few crops and too much animal protein is pushing deforestation, intensive overfarming, fertilizer and plastic pollution and massive greenhouse emissions.
The WWF has partnered with European conglomerate Knorr foods in the Future 50 Foods campaign to encourage people to diversify their diets. Marie Haga attended the launch and supports the campaign. She's head of Crop Trust, an organization focused on crop diversity.
MARIE HAGA: We probably have globally, you know, like, 30,000 plants that we could eat. We eat roughly 150 of those, and, again, only four of them are so dominant that it's really a challenge for the whole food system.
BEARDSLEY: Haga is talking about wheat, rice, maize and potatoes. She says this dependence on a few crops is also a threat to food security. The world's population could reach 10 billion by 2050. She says if we're to feed everyone with a changing climate, we'll need diverse crops that can adapt to extreme weather conditions.
PIERRE THIAM: Oh, I'm optimistic. After events like today, I'm like...
BEARDSLEY: Pierre Thiam from Senegal is now a chef in New York. He says people are beginning to wake up to the problem and the wide variety of alternative foods. He says he grew up eating many of the foods on the Future 50 list, like the ancient grain fonio.
THIAM: It's a grain that's, like, great for the planet. It's gluten free. It's drought-resistant. It grows in two months. It scores low on the glycemic index, so it's great for your health.
BEARDSLEY: The 50 foods the campaign recommends have high nutritional value, low environmental impact, flavor, accessibility and affordability. They include mushrooms, beans and pulses, nuts, tubers, algae and cacti. You might expect global food companies to resist such a push for food diversity, but Dorothy Shaver from Knorr says a shift in the types of foods people eat is inevitable, and it will create plenty of market opportunities.
DOROTHY SHAVER: We could get them to switch out one of their white potatoes that people potentially eat four to five times every week and make that a purple yam, or, you know, in Indonesia, make it an Indonesian sweet potato instead of white rice.
BEARDSLEY: Sam Kass was White House chef for President and Michelle Obama and directed the first lady's Let's Move campaign. He says, with 1 in 3 American kids now headed for obesity, food diversity is exactly what's needed.
SAM KASS: What's exciting about this is that some of the biggest issues we face - climate change and human health issues - are coming together, and the solutions are deeply aligned. It turns out what's good for us is typically better for the planet.
BEARDSLEY: Kass says consumers have the power to force a change in food consumption. Americans might not be familiar with fonio or some of the other more exotic crops, he says, but they can start by cutting back on meat and eating more beans.
KASS: Oh, my God. Any bean - you can't go wrong. Black beans, pinto beans couldn't be better for you and are as sustainable as literally any other product.
BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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