Nourishing Earth, Nourishing Ourselves Part 1: Linking Plant Diversity With the Health of Livestock and Humans

Frederick D. Provenza, PhD


Issue: Volume 71 Summer 2023

Online Publication Date: 14 June 2023


The foods we eat reveal the nature of our relationships with the places where we live. In this first of 3 papers, I highlight how the “taste of a place,” or terroir, enables animals to meet their needs for nutrients and self medicate by learning to eat nourishing combinations of foods in utero and early in life and by metabolically mediated flavor-feedback associations that alter food preferences as needs arise. When domestic herbivores learn to forage in landscapes with diverse mixtures of plant species, phytochemically rich diets bolster their health and protect them from diseases through antimicrobial, antiparasitic, anti-inflammatory, and immune-boosting properties. Human benefits accrue as livestock assimilate some phytochemicals and convert others into metabolites that enhance the flavors of meat and dairy and promote human health. During the past century, to our detriment, the flavors of meat, dairy, and produce became bland, while ultra-processed foods became irresistible as farmers and ranchers emphasized yield and transportability over taste and phytochemical and biochemical richness. At the same time, the food industry learned how to produce ultra-processed “foods” that hijack preferences. They do so by linking artificial flavors with metabolically mediated feedback from cells and organs in response to refined carbohydrates and sugars that, together with artificial flavors, obscure nutritional uniformity and undermine health. Fossil fuel-based food production has come at great costs ecologically, economically, and socially. With the uncertain availability and prices of fossil fuels a concern and the transition to clean energy a necessity, we have an opportunity to grow nutrient-rich foods in ways that nurture our relationship with life on Earth. Veterinarians can help people realize fossil fuels and climate change are part of an interwoven complex of food- and environment-related sustainability challenges that affect health and welfare. As voices for One Health, we must all come to value the role of plant diversity in creating homes, grocery stores, and pharmacies for all life below and above ground, while fixing carbon and reducing methane, thus helping to abate warming climates.