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Range scientist: Biodiversity essential to good health

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal
Fred Provenza draws on decades of work as a wildlife biologist and range scientist to explain the innate “wisdom of the body” and how to tap into it for healthier eating in his latest book, "Nourishment."

Decades of research shows that biodiversity is essential for the health of the land, livestock and even humans, a pioneering range management specialist says.

Ecologists have been talking about the value of biodiversity for years, but a “blend of old ideas with emerging things starting to come about in the scientific literature today” demonstrates “the wisdom of the body” is something that can be studied, honored and strengthened, according to Fred Provenza.

Provenza talked at length about the topic during an online appearance at the winter conference of the Montana Organic Association.

Provenza began his studies in Colorado, where he worked on a ranch near Salida and studied wildlife biology at Colorado State University. He is now retired after 30 years at Utah State University and lives with his wife on a small acreage near Ennis, Montana.

His most recent book is "Nourishment: What Animals Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Nutritional Wisdom," published by Chelsea Green in late 2018.

He believes animals — and humans — have an innate ability to seek out the foods their bodies need. But the key to that is having sufficient diversity to self-select for needed compounds.

Observing feeding behavior in livestock has proved to him that cravings are not just a response to flavor, but an indication the body is seeking to balance out various primary and secondary micronutrients.

Primary nutrients include things like energy, protein and minerals, while common secondary compounds include antioxidants, phenols, tannins and alkaloids, which act as natural sunscreens, disease fighters, healing agents and more.

“What we were finding with our studies over the years, and the thing for me that was most shocking, is palatability ends up being more than just a matter of taste,” he said. “There are complex interrelationships between primary and secondary compounds, and their doses increase the degree to which animals like particular foods. Plants respond biochemically to the things in the environment, and herbivores respond to that, and they are very good at figuring that out.”

Landscapes with diverse plantings serve as “nutrition centers and pharmacies that enable health for creatures both above and below ground,” he said.

Likewise, humans need a diverse diet of natural, minimally processed foods rather than individual dietary supplements made by “isolating and purifying compounds.”

There’s a difference, he noted, between a garlic capsule and a garlic clove.

“Rather than focusing on one compound, it’s the synergies between all these things that really count,” he said. “Biodiversity creates complementarities.”

Provenza recalled that 50 years ago, when he was still an undergrad at CSU, ecologists were already talking about diversity but didn’t really understand the full implications behind why it was important.

“At first we didn’t understand what role all of these different compounds played,” he said.

Now research is beginning to make the relevance of secondary nutritional compounds more tangible and concrete.

“There’s some unique research coming out now, where people are starting to look at increasing the diversity of the range and does it increase the health of the animals,” he said. “And it is showing that the more diverse the plant community, the more healthy the animals are. Cattle and sheep gain more efficiently with less emissions when grazing a diverse array of plants.”

That is also opening up new frontiers in understanding human health, he added.

“We proved animals can learn to self-medicate,” he said. “As humans, we can also let food be our medicine."