One of today’s best-known “superfoods,” quinoa has been a crop within South America’s indigenous rural communities for thousands of years. Pre-Columbian peoples first cultivated the flowering plant in the Andes as animal feed, though it eventually made its way over to the Lake Titicaca basin of Peru and Bolivia, where the ancient civilizations grew it for human consumption. When the Spanish arrived in the region in the 16th century, they replaced quinoa with cereal, though thankfully the former—a particularly hearty crop—continued growing at higher altitudes.

Still, it wasn’t until a couple of decades ago that quinoa exploded in global popularity, being touted as a healthier substitute for rice (and used as an ingredient in everything from salads to muffins) and completely transforming South America’s agricultural system. 

Native Quechua Indian farmers with cattle in Bonbon. Native Quechua Indians in the park's southern neighbouring area, Andean highland (3000-3500m), Rio Mapacho Valley, Manu National Park, Peru

© André Bärtschi / WWF

But while the quinoa boom initially became an opportunity for Andean farmers to turn a profit, it soon resulted in an increase of lower elevation, large-scale farms that utilized mechanical farming, pesticides, and cheap labor to meet demand. Not only were smaller farmers left unable to compete in a more crowded market, but many of these large-scale production methods were wreaking havoc on the ancient crop, as well as nature itself.

According to WWF’s findings, “Food production is the single biggest threat to nature today.” We’re cutting down forests and clearing away prime wildlife habitat to make room for additional crops and livestock, destabilizing many of our natural systems in the process.

Then there’s the fact that 75% of the global food supply comes from just twelve plants and five animal species, with rice, maize, and wheat making up nearly 60% of calories from plants in the entire human diet. As farmers start focusing on only producing the crops and/or breeding the livestock that’s profitable, it leads to a loss in biodiversity and an increased risk of disease and pest outbreaks—as well as the use of pesticides and herbicides to protect against them. The lack of crop rotation depletes the soil of its nutrients, which can reduce the amount of arable (crop-growing) land. 

From the changes in land use to production, processing, transport, packaging, and retail, the food industry is responsible for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, which plays a major role in climate change. In turn, extreme weather events like forest fires, floods, and drought are occurring much more frequently, further damaging our ecosystems, not to mention the global economy. 

Rescue workers used boats to navigate the floodwater in the centre of York after the River Ouse burst its banks.

© PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

“Whether it’s how we grow it, or what we choose to eat, food impacts everything we do,” says Sam Wildman, WWF’s senior program officer of sustainable protein and feed systems. 

Rethinking What and How We Eat 

As our demand for food grows at an exponential level (according to the United Nations, “The world’s population is expected to increase by nearly 2 billion persons in the next 30 years, from the current 8 billion to 9.7 billion in 2050”), it’s important to start rethinking both what and how we eat. 

Here at WWF, we have learned that sustainable diets are key to improving our food systems. In 2019, WWF even partnered with German-based food and beverage brand Knorr to publish the Future 50 Foods report, a compilation of “50 foods for healthier people and a healthier planet.” Each of the included foods is plant-based, beneficially nutritious, and can help reduce environmental impacts on the overall food supply and all aspects of the supply chain, including everything from production and processing distribution, retail, consumption, and disposal.

Sustainable food, vegan, dinner, lunch, portion, recipe, kale, minestrone, vastuullinen, ruoka, illlallinen, lounas, annos, resepti, lehtikaali, minestrone

© Reetta Pasanen / WWF

The Future 50 list features foods like algae, watercress, kale, purple yams, and yes, quinoa, which despite a global market for just a few varieties, has approximately 3,000 different types to choose from. Along with being both affordable and somewhat accessible, these foods are also a great way to diversify local food systems. 

Working with Nature 

However, says Wildman, who comes from an eighth-generation farm family, it’s important to note that while some foods (like beef) often get a bad rap, all food serves a purpose. “The focus of WWF’s food team is really on sustainable food production,” he says. This means that WWF works with stakeholders to ensure that food is not only nutritious, diverse, affordable, and environmentally friendly, but also helps to shape and improve global issues like land use. 

“While food production has incredible risk and negative environmental impacts or losses,” says Wildman, “it’s also our greatest lever for change and our greatest opportunity to make a positive impact on the system, on the planet, and on the outcomes that we need to achieve.”

For farmers, sustainable food systems mean integrating management practices such as regenerative agriculture, which is huge for ensuring healthy, diverse, and resilient soils throughout our food production systems, planting cover crops to keep the soil and its nutrients in place, and allowing livestock to graze, which helps improve grasslands by capturing carbon and increasing plant variety. It also means prioritizing landscape conservation, which can not only help ensure biodiversity through connecting and preserving wildlife corridors but “is also a great opportunity to sequester carbon and play a positive role in climate change,” says Wildman. 

Regenerative farmer Hywel Morgan with his highland cattle, which graze alongside his cross shorthorn sheep on his farm in Wales

Regenerative farmer Hywel Morgan with his highland cattle, which graze alongside his cross shorthorn sheep on his farm in Wales. © David Bebber / WWF-UK

What Consumers Can Do

It’s all about eating responsibly. 

Food is one of life’s basic necessities, yet the amount of food that humans toss out annually is mindblowing. “The average US household throws away $1500 a year in food, which is crazy,” says Wildman, who has several tips on ways we can make our own positive impacts on protecting food systems. 

  1. “Be strategic in what you buy and/or what you throw away from a food perspective,” he says. Food waste that ends up in a landfill plays a significant role in the production of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. This is where food upcycling—or, using foods or food scraps that you might normally throw away—comes into play. For example, says Wildman, rather than tossing some soon-to-go-bad fruits, “make them into a smoothie and freeze it.” Are veggies just sitting in your fridge? “Incorporate them into a random stir-fry.”
  2. Plan out your meals before going to the store, make a list of what you need, and organize the food in your cabinets and refrigerator so you know what you already have. “So that you don’t end up with two cans of black olives that you don’t need,” says Wildman, or more balsamic vinegar than you know what to do with.
  3. Freeze food that you’re not going to get to right away so that it stays usable and fresh, and move more perishable foods to the front of your fridge so they’re visible.
  4. Use common sense around “best by,” and “sell by” dates, and understand their meanings (for example, neither of these means the food has gone bad, just that it’s passed its peak quality). For instance, says Wildman, there’s a phenomenon of ‘when in doubt, throw it out,’ but there’s some leeway. “Throw it out when it’s no longer safe to eat or the quality has deteriorated,” he says.

Positive Solutions

Whether it’s incorporating more types of quinoa into our diets or being conscious about using up leftovers, there are many ways that we as consumers can eat to improve our food systems and help protect nature in the process. 

Women selling fruit and vegetables in the towns central market, Kota Bharu, Kelantan State, Malaysia 2008

© / Gavin Hellier / WWF

“I think what really matters is that we work together to contribute to a positive solution of sustainable food systems,” says Wildman, “by focusing on what we can do to impact change on sustainable production practices, as well as our own food consumption.”