Plant diversity important for health, not just the planet

Biodiversity is the new orange, or black, or whatever is on-trend/vital to have. Biodiversity is going to become the "carbon and methane" of the Government’s rhetoric very soon.

Biodiversity credits will become an addition to, or an improvement of, the carbon credit system as we face a global biodiversity collapse. The reduction in global species, of all genera, and what we can do about it has got me thinking about the parallels of what happens in our environment with what happens within our own health as a species.

The worldwide spread of a "globalised diet" means only 15 plant species provide 90% of global food intake with the "big four" — maize, rice, wheat and potatoes being staples for five billion people (and used for livestock feed) — this is despite there being 50,000 edible plant species on the planet.

In parallel to this, within the human species we are seeing significant changes in the microorganism species that exist in our gut. Eating fibre is important for growth of healthy species of bacteria in our gut and we get most of the different fibre types from the differing plant species that we eat. Low-fibre intake in Western societies is purported to be a driver in the depletion of human gut microbiota and subsequent increases in chronic non-communicable diseases, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and colon cancer.

A "normal" adult human harbours as many as 100 trillion resident microbes (compared with about 37 trillion human cells). These complex communities have a symbiotic relationship with the human host and are involved in many aspects of human physiology. Due to the complexity of our internal ecosystem and the many players within it, there is no clear list of what bacteria make up a "normal" healthy gut, but we increasingly understand that the diversity — the mix of different species — plays an important role in our ability to absorb and utilise nutrients and micronutrients from our diet and produce compounds important for cell signalling to our brain, other organs and immune system.

In a study by Vangay and others (Cell, 2018), Asian migrants who had moved to the United States had reduced gut microbial diversity and function due to the change to a more Western diet. They also found that bacterial strains from the genus Prevotella, whose enzymes degrade plant fibre, became displaced by dominant strains from the genus Bacteroides, and this was correlated with the amount of time the individual had spent in the United States.

In scientific circles, our understanding of the gut microbiota and its association with health and disease is a relatively new field, but it strikes me as we move to do more to slow a planetary biodiversity collapse that we need to do this in conjunction with redesigning our food supply systems in relation to enhancing human health.

When I think about all of this, I try not to think in terms of food or production labels — it’s not about becoming vegan or vegetarian or being regenerative. Rather, it is about eating and growing more plants of more varied species, produced in mixed farming models with less use of pesticides and herbicides.

From a farming perspective, rather than focusing on the negatives of the regulatory environment, there are opportunities to explore what can be grown, rather than what can’t.

Let’s be clear though, this cannot be a farmer issue or decision alone. If we grow new and varied plant species, in ways which lessen monocultures and enhance biodiversity, we need to support that with manufacturing and supply chains that drive profits to all players (not just to the supermarkets) and produce the best products for human health. This will need greater innovation and manufacturing here in New Zealand.

What excites me about all this, is we can design a system where environmental health and human health go hand in hand.

As a country of food producers who are worried about what lies ahead for the planet, it makes sense to get ahead of the curve and start now before someone, somewhere in a bureaucratic tower, designs something unworkable.

 - Anna Campbell is co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company. She holds various directorships.