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Agricultural biodiversity: a cornerstone for family farm adaptation to climate change

Quinoa farmer from Puno, Peru discusses his harvest. Credit: Bioversity International/M.Ramirez

Marleni Ramirez, Regional Representative, Central and South America, reports back from 5th Regional Seminar on agriculture and climate change hosted in Chile.

Marleni Ramirez, Regional Representative, Central and South America, reports back fromthe 5th Regional Seminar on agriculture and climate change hosted in Chile.

Q: Tell us about an interesting event or seminar thathighlighted your summer.

A: The 5th Regional Seminar on agriculture and climate change hosted in Chile was a truly great platform to raise awareness of the importance of agricultural biodiversity. I was pleased to be invited to present on plant genetic resources, underutilized crops and adaptation to climate change.

The seminar was organized by the Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL) with the regional office of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). The meeting was attended and co-sponsored by ministerial representatives and organizations like Oxfam, CIRAD and Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). What was really interesting to me was the broad range of participants including social scientists – showing how much this issue is related to people. This was emphasized by holding the event as part of activities to mark the International Year of Family Farming.

Q: Why is agricultural biodiversity important for climate change adaptation?

A: At Bioversity International, we think that diversity within crops is one of the best solutions to provide options for adaptation to climate change and help farmers. We're already experiencing new climates which are affecting how we are able to grow food. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that climate change will reduce agricultural production by 2%, while demand will increase by 14% every decade until 2050.

Q: Can you give an example of Bioversity International's work in this area?

A: Regarding climate change, farmers often point out that they would like to have more information about how the weather is predicted to change. They also need access to seeds that will grow in the new conditions.

An example I shared with the audience in Chile was our 'Seeds for Needs' initiative which is taking place in 11 countries around the world. Through this initiative, researchers are working to see whether giving farmers more information and access to a wider range of crops and varieties will translate in them being more likely and able to choose what best suits their conditions and cope with unpredictable weather. The farmers are actively taking part in the research; they are testing different varieties through a 'crowdsourcing approach' and we [researchers], in turn, make sure that all the information collected will be looped back to the farmers. We have also added weather sensors in farmers' fields so that we can compare temperature and rainfall with how the different varieties perform.

We have about 10,000 farmers taking part of 'Seeds for Needs' at the moment, and we will soon have results to share.

We are also supporting and studying the mechanisms that maintain community seedbanks, which I consider an insurance policy for safeguarding crop diversity for the future.

Q: Do you think that solutions can be scaled up when farms are often small, in different kinds of environments, grow different kinds of crops and have access to different seeds?

A: Solutions, no, but approaches can be scaled up. Currently, there is no 'one size fits all' solution. This is precisely what we at Bioversity International are studying and while we don't have an answer yet, we do know that solutions must be tailored to 'fit' local variations in terrains, climates, soils and everything else that is different.

We are also analyzing information that can help decision-makers tackle these difficult challenges through the use of genetic resources. For example, we recently worked with countries to develop a strategic action plan to strengthen the conservation and use of Mesoamerican plant genetic resources in adapting agriculture to climate change. In terms of genetic resources, Mesoamerica is a rich and diverse region and  this is an advantage that can be used for the benefit of dealing with the particular stresses of climate change.

Q: Can you give us insight into what effects of climate change the farmers in the Americas are experiencing on the ground?

A: What you hear from farmers is that the varieties that they used to grow are not able to grow now. In one case I remember, a farmer had lost a variety altogether following extreme weather – excessive rain, hurricanes – which irreversibly destroyed the crops.

This example shows just how local some varieties are to a particular area. But I think that one role that an organization like Bioversity International can play is  to find ways to conserve priority varieties that are most endangered. For example, our 'Payment for Agrobiodiversity Conservation Services' (PACS) initiative is looking at incentive schemes for farmers to conserve varieties that are at risk and maintain them in their diversity portfolio.

Q: After the 5th Regional Seminar on agriculture and climate change, what do you think the next steps are?

A: Meetings of this kind are fantastic opportunities for networking. In this case, the fact that stakeholders such as CEPAL, Oxfam, who were not familiar with our work were in attendance presents an opportunity for further follow-up with them so that diversity-rich options are considered in dealing with climate change and other stresses.


View Marleni's presentation from the 5th Regional Seminar on agriculture and climate change: Recursos fitogenéticos y cultivos tradicionales en la adaptación de la agricultura al cambio climático

Photo: Quinoa farmer from Puno, Peru discusses his harvest. Credit: Bioversity International/M.Ramirez