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To conserve biodiversity, conserve agricultural biodiversity

Diverse crops growing on a field as part of on-farm conservation project in Ecuador. Credit: Bioversity International/M.Bellon

In her latest blog, Ann Tutwiler, Director General of Bioversity International, explains why she is proud to be an International Ambassador for the Food and Land Use Coalition.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) Assembly met last week in Da Nang, Viet Nam. The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific,Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) convenes this week in Montreal, Canada. At both meetings, Bioversity International was in attendance to highlight the importance of agricultural biodiversity for the future well-being of the planet and the people who live on it.

Bioversity International has championed agricultural biodiversity for as long as we have been in existence, and this work is being increasingly recognized globally. I was recently asked to be an International Ambassador for the Food and Land Use Coalition, a role I relish because I share the Coalition’s vision of food and land use systems that create new economic value while simultaneously protecting natural resources, addressing climate change, enhancing nutrition and improving the livelihoods of farmers everywhere. Indeed, it is testimony to the shared goals of Bioversity International and the Coalition that fellow Ambassadors include Bioversity International board members and colleagues, while the Coalition’s Director of Science is Bioversity International Scientist, Fabrice DeClerck.

You can have it all

One of the key ideas behind the Coalition is that you don’t have to choose between reducing greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth. Equally, as I have often said in the past, you don’t need to choose between environmental conservation and agriculture. It is true that food production systems account for almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention pollution and soil degradation. But that is because of the way food systems operate, and food systems can change. Such change offers immediate benefits too, in the form of $2.3 trillion in economic growth and 80 million jobs by 2030, as the Coalition has pointed out.

At the heart of any such change is agricultural biodiversity. For far too long, conservation and farming have been at loggerheads. To look at the literature, you can hardly find mention of agricultural biodiversity; only 100 out of 19,000 scientific papers we looked at with “biodiversity” in the title also mention agriculture in the title. And yet agricultural biodiversity is a part of the biodiversity conservationists want to protect. We mapped the places where farmers routinely grow more than 15 crops and compared them with agreed conservation hotspots; the overlap in considerable in Mediterranean Europe, western India, southern Thailand, south-eastern Bolivia, parts of Indonesia and China and East Africa in an arc from Ethiopia, through Kenya, into Tanzania and Uganda.

Biodiversity and its component agricultural biodiversity are subject to many of the same threats and deliver many of the same benefits. More than that, agricultural biodiversity supplies food security and livelihood benefits that can actually give farmers an incentive to conserve their environments. And as 38 percent of all land is farmed in some way, a wiser use of agricultural biodiversity across that area would greatly reduce the threats that conservationists rightly see in some of the more rapacious forms of farming.

A small example of the bigger picture

In Burkina Faso, a poor country where people are chronically hungry, semi-wild biodiversity – in the form of trees that are more or less managed – is a source of food and income. One of the most important is the African locust bean (Parkia biglobosa), harvested primarily for its pods. These contain a sweet pulp and seeds that women laboriously process into a spice called soumbala, sold in the markets as dried balls of fermented bean paste. Soumbala is rich in protein and essential nutrients and adds its characteristic pungent flavour to around four out of every five meals across West Africa. The tree is also a source of traditional medicines and contributes to soil fertility.

Bioversity International undertook a multidisciplinary study to understand the threats to 16 different economically important tree species, from over-exploitation and overgrazing to cotton production and climate change. All 16 are threatened to some extent, but by differing forces. African locust bean’s main challenges are from overexploitation and changes in land use to favour cotton. The study recommended collecting seeds for planting and possible domestication in more suitable climates and for safekeeping in the local National Tree Seed Center’s collection.

African locust bean is a microcosm of the value of agricultural biodiversity. It is one of the tens of thousands of plant species that people could make more use of. In doing so, they would reduce their dependence on agricultural staples and at the same time improve their nutrition and, for the women who produce soumbala, their economic status. It is threatened by the same changes that threaten the rest of biodiversity. Its presence contributes to environmental services, can help to restore degraded land and reduces the negative impacts of intensive agriculture.

Be the change

That said, there remain huge challenges in making more use of agricultural biodiversity. One of the most important is that there are no currently agreed standard ways to measure agricultural biodiversity; unless we can measure something, we cannot manage it. That is why Bioversity International has been working on an Agrobiodiversity Index, which will offer countries, companies and investors a yardstick with which to measure agricultural biodiversity in diets and markets, in production systems and in genetic resources. The Agrobiodiversity Index will allow clear, evidence-based decisions that favour the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity, which in turn is essential to improve food and nutrition security, to boost human well-being and to safeguard the environment.

The other great challenge is that food systems are inherently complex, involving everything from plant breeding and seed supply to food processing and delivery, and all the steps in between. The Food and Land Use Coalition has recognised that and brought together an impressively wide group of stakeholders, all of whom have a part to play in achieving meaningful change. Within the Coalition, Bioversity International will continue our work to ensure that agricultural biodiversity delivers the benefits we know it can.

Partners

Fundamental to such successes are the partnerships that Bioversity International has built, with CGIAR Centres and Research Programs including national and regional research institutes, civil society organizations, development agencies, government departments, academia and the private sector. The power of partnerships – in helping foster outcomes and contributing to important scientific outputs – is a key strategy that will continue to inform Bioversity International’s strategy going forward.

We thank all of our research, resource and implementation partners for their critical support and look forward to fruitful collaboration in future.

Ann Tutwiler

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