Agricultural biodiversity is the basis of human survival and well-being yet it is being lost at an alarming rate. Maintaining crop diversity helps ensure the continuation of existing evolutionary processes, providing future food growing options for us all, in the face of climate change and outbreaks of new pests and diseases.
The benefits of agricultural biodiversity are not fully reflected by the market. This creates a bias in favour of commercially-driven, often highly specialized monocultural, agricultural systems designed to maximize output. The resulting displacement leads to many other important plant and animal (livestock) genetic diversity becoming increasingly threatened as conserving biodiversity is not considered commercially attractive.
The application of Payment for Ecosystem Services specifically for agricultural biodiversity conservation is a new idea and Bioversity International is at its forefront. We are currently/have been working in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, India and Nepal, to test the potential of competitive tenders in creating cost-efficient strategies to conserve priority endangered species and also improve indigenous farmer livelihoods.
Agricultural biodiversity’s unrecognized values in the commercial market-place mean that conservation is often carried out on farm by poor smallholder farmers, who maintain certain crop species/varieties at their own cost for reasons other than just high output.
Smallholder farmers, especially those on marginal lands, are often much more interested in minimizing risk than in maximizing productivity. They need to feed themselves and their families. A surplus for sale is good, but not the key to a sustainable livelihood. For example, maintaining a variety of different crops can reduce the risk of complete loss in the event of harvest failure. A particular species/variety may also be socially and culturally valuable, used as part of a traditional cuisine or ceremony such as a wedding. Yet maintaining crop diversity at the 'on farm' level generates benefits at the local, national or even global level.
The costs of maintaining diversity for local, national and global benefit is currently borne by the smallholder farmer. This cannot continue if we want to secure socially desirable levels of conservation for the greater public good and protect the priority crops that are at the most risk of extinction. Recognition of the value of farmers’ work in maintaining such agricultural biodiversity, and the provision of positive incentives that adequately compensate them for doing so (as called for by the Convention on Biological Diversity) is urgently needed - a form of Payment for Ecosystem Services.