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World Economic Forum highlights diversity as a key resilience strategy for future shocks

Every year since 2005, the World Economic Forum releases a Global Risks Report, which analyses the evolution and intensity of global risks. Ann Tutwiler reflects on how agricultural biodiversity can mitigate these risks and enhance resilience in her latest DG Dialogues blog.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is a Swiss-based foundation committed to improving the state of the world. Every year the foremost political, business and other leaders of society meet in Davos to shape global, regional and industry agendas. Since 2005, the Forum has released a yearly Global Risks Report, which analyses the evolution and intensity of global risks.

Ann Tutwiler, Director General, Bioversity International, reflects on how agricultural biodiversity can mitigate these risks and enhance resilience in her latest blog.

Environmental risks topped the charts in this year’s Global Risks Report published last week by the World Economic Forum. Hundreds of global leaders from business, government and non-governmental organizations around the world agree that environmental risks are the most dangerous risks facing the world (The Global Risks Landscape 2018). The top five environmental risks – extreme weather events, natural disasters, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, and man-made environmental disasters – are not only highly likely to occur, they are highly likely to have a devastating impact if they do occur.

However, these are not separate and individualized risks; they exacerbate and compound each other.

Reducing hunger by intensifying and modernizing agriculture has contributed to man-made disasters, such as climate change, soil depletion, nitrogen loading and deforestation. These in turn trigger extreme weather events, such as the increased incidence of high temperatures and category five hurricanes.

The Global Risks Report’s map of these interconnections illustrates the strong feedback loops biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, food crises, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation and extreme weather events. These in turn drive large-scale involuntary migration and to profound social instability. Yet, the latter, with hardly a mention of the former, dominate today’s political debates.

When I look at the Global Risks Interconnections Map, the common thread is our agricultural and food systems, which both contribute to these risks but are also vulnerable to them. What is startling is that the World Economic Forum report recognizes that the traditional advice to diversify our financial portfolios applies not just to saving for retirement, it also applies to saving the planet. You would never invest all your retirement savings in just one bond or one company’s stock, so why are our food systems invested in such a narrow slice of the available diversity. There are over 5,000 plant species and 40 animal species documented as human food, but we rely on 3 crops for over half our plant based calories, and a mere 12 crops and five animal species for three quarters of our food supply. It is a risky investment strategy indeed.

Diversity and resilience is the core of Bioversity International’s research agenda. Our research demonstrates that agricultural and tree biodiversity are essential to addressing food insecurity, climate change, extreme weather and ecosystem collapse. Four solutions in one!  

Let me give you a few examples of what we are learning about the diversity effect:

Agrobiodiversity can help expand food production while reducing the risk of wild biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse. Agricultural biodiversity has been a victim of food crises because of the pressure to modernize, industrialize, and homogenize agriculture for greater yield, but our research demonstrates that agricultural biodiversity offers part of the solution to food crises. The evidence shows that mixtures of different varieties of the same crop grown in proximity tend to produce greater relative yields and more yield stability than monoculture crops, especially if the mixtures are selected to include varieties that contain disease resistance or resistance to drought. Diversity from the genetic to the landscape level builds resilience into farming systems. For example adding coppices of trees, or wild borders, to fields provides a habitat for pollinators and creatures that prey on crop pests.

Agrobiodiversity provides resilience in extreme weather events. The benefits of diversity are greater, the worse the weather conditions. In ideal conditions, both monocultures and variety mixtures perform well, but if soils are poor or there is a lack of water, mixtures of varieties are more likely to provide a higher and more stable yield. At landscape level, farms with high biodiversity suffer less damage from high-impact events like hurricanes.

Agrobiodiversity reduces the need for synthetic inputs. Mixtures of different varieties provide yield insurance in less than ideal conditions, reducing the need for the yield insurance provided by fertilizers and water. Different varieties of the same crop contain different traits – for example, tolerance to drought or to flooding, resistance to certain insects – and these traits can be deployed in the field. Diversity at species level, across time (by rotating crops from one season to the next), or across space (by adding hedgerows), boosts resilience to climate shocks and pest and disease pressure.

Every day, we are learning how agricultural biodiversity is as an effective risk management strategy for building resilience in our food and agricultural systems as financial diversity is for building resilience in our economic systems. It is heartening that the Global Risks Report has recognized these risks, but telling that while experts agree on the importance of maintaining biodiversity in our ecosystems, this risk is not better understood by a wider public.

We need to get the knowledge about agricultural biodiversity solutions into the hands of national governments, civil society and private companies. Using and safeguarding agricultural biodiversity is not only an environmental imperative; it is essential for human health and prosperity. Stepping up agricultural biodiversity research, conservation and use is a key resilience strategy and is urgent.

I invite you to read more about the importance of mainstreaming agrobiodiversity in our new book, Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems.

M. Ann Tutwiler

Photo: Crop diversity on display at a market in Ecuador. Credit: Bioversity International/F.Finocchio

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