Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

Use it or lose it – why we should take a stand for agricultural biodiversity

22 May 2017

On the International Day for Biological Diversity, Ann Tutwiler passes the baton of DG Dialogues to Pietro Sebastiani, Director General for Development Cooperation, Italy. He explains why agrobiodiversity is the foundation of our food systems, and how it contributes greatly to Italy's economy and makes it one of the richest culinary cultures in the world.

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Happy International Day for Biological Diversity to everyone! This day holds a special place in my heart, because it reminds me of the importance of biodiversity and natural resources and the fact that we are their custodians for future generations. 

As Director General for Development Cooperation and an Italian, I see agricultural biodiversity – agrobiodiversity – as much more than just plants and animals we use for food and nutritional security. Agrobiodiversity contributes to delivering on multiple Sustainable Development Goals since it is the basis of more resilient agricultural ecosystems, plays a key role in coping with the impacts of climate change and much more.

Agrobiodiversity is the source of Italian culinary heritage that delights taste buds worldwide and provides employment to millions of people who work in the food and tourism sectors. In Italy, the agricultural, food and restaurant sector accounts for more than 2 million companies, making up 8.7% of the GDP. We also lead the European ranking in biodiversity both in animal diversity (with 55,600 species Italy has almost 30% of all the European species) and vegetable diversity with 7,636 species.

So, in parole povere – as we say in Italy – without agrobiodiversity we wouldn’t have the Italy that we love and cherish, the diverse foods on our tables and jobs that contribute to our country’s economy. 

This year’s celebration puts the spotlight on biodiversity and sustainable tourism. The two pretty much go hand in hand. Tourism revenue – that in Italy accounts for 11.8% of the GDP – can contribute to reducing threats and restoring wildlife and biodiversity. In addition, linking tourism with biodiversity has an encouraging message: discovering a region’s or country’s cultural and gastronomic riches allows for us to maintain, and possibly even increase biodiversity. Ordering a dish – for example soup made with Castelluccio di Norcia lentils – supports the conservation of unique culinary traditions and crops that come from regions that last summer were devastated by earthquakes. 

One of our most popular dishes and products is pasta. It is an example of how culinary and agricultural traditions can be passed between nations. Pasta is synonymous with Italian cuisine and yet fields of its main ingredient – durum wheat – can be found in Ethiopia, a major centre for this crop’s diversity, where it has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years.

Bioversity International, with which our Directorate General for Development Cooperation has had a long-standing and fruitful partnership*, has an initiative in Ethiopia, called ‘Seeds for Needs’, that works with farmers to study how durum wheat diversity can help minimize the risks associated with climate change. 

Tourism can open our eyes to the disappearing agrobiodiversity and other food trends. Before the ‘90s, rucola – rocket or arugula – was practically unseen in Italian farmers’ markets and now even customers in Northern Europe and the US demand this leafy vegetable. 

This trend of bringing rocket back to Mediterranean tables was partly envisioned by Bioversity International with the support of the Italian Government.

From the ‘60s to late ‘80s, rocket was seen as a poor people’s food, plucked in the wild. Science didn’t really ‘get’ to it until the late ‘80s. Partners such as Università di Bari discovered that rocket is one of the most nutritious crops found in Italy; a few leaves contribute almost all of the daily vitamin C that our bodies need. It wasn’t long until rocket started to appear in farmers’ fields and on peoples’ plates where it continues to be today. 

On the International Day for Biological Diversity, I urge you to try different crop varieties and travel around your own region, country or even just to your local farmers’ market and learn about the people who grow your food, why a crop or dish is becoming trendy and listen to elderly peoples’ stories about how the food system is changing. Tell your friends about it and share your passion for agrobiodiversity on social media because, at the end of the day, it is the foundation of our food system and we can all play a role in popularizing it. 

Pietro Sebastiani, Director General for Development Cooperation, Italy

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* In 2016, the Italian Parliament ratified a new hosting agreement between the Government of Italy and Bioversity International. The agreement reinforces the long-standing partnership between Bioversity International and Italy, especially through the Directorate General for Development Cooperation, to advance research activities to use and safeguard agricultural biodiversity to nourish people and sustain the planet. Bioversity International’s fruitful partnership with the Italian Development Cooperation ranges from policy dialogue to knowledge exchange, and field cooperation across several priority areas, including sustainable rural development, resilient food systems, nutrition security, gender and climate change adaptation. 

Photos from top to bottom:
Photo 1: Pietro Sebastiani, Director General for Development Cooperation, Italy
Photo 2: Woman buying aragula at a market in Italy. This previously-neglected roadside herb has been revived and become part of gourmet supermarkets around the world thanks in part to work by Bioversity International and partners. Credit: Bioversity International/R.Faidutti
Photo 3: Farmer studying the trial plots of durum wheat at Geregera, one of the sites of the Seeds for Needs initiative in Ethiopia. Credit: Bioversity International/S.Collins