Three reasons to protect agricultural biodiversity

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0

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Durum wheat variety, Ethiopia. Credit: Bioversity International

Even though new species are being discovered every day, one in five plants are threatened with extinction, according to the first annual State of the world’s plants, 2016 published by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in May 2016. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the largest threats facing these endangered plant species are the conversion of land for agriculture and biological resource use – the deliberate or unintentional consumption of a ‘wild’ species. Indeed, agriculture has been identified as the main threat to 85% of all threatened species, plant and animal, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. For example, the growth of palm oil plantations has led to significant losses of natural forests and peatlands, with accompanying impacts on biodiversity.

Agricultural biodiversity, defined by Bioversity International as “the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture,” is facing serious decline. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) some 75% of genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s. There are several causes of this loss of diversity, but the main reasons are ease of production and changes in consumer expectations and preferences, leading to an ever greater uniformity in the end product. If the produce is what people want to buy and it’s easy to produce why should it matter if there is less biodiversity? Here are three, of many, reasons why it is of paramount importance:

  1. Genetic diversity is important for an uncertain future
varieties of quinoa credit FAOALC

Several different varieties of quinoa grown in Peru. Credit, FAO

Genetic diversity in agricultural systems may be lost if species go extinct or different varieties of a species fall out of favour. If this happens, genes that are important for resistance to pests or diseases, confer tolerance to changing weather patterns and extreme weather events, or make the crop nutritious, may be lost. Even if these traits are not evident or useful now, the advantage they confer may be valuable for future generations, and may be difficult or impossible to recreate once they are gone. Indeed, work by Bioversity International highlights how the wild relatives of cultivated crops are already becoming increasingly important in the search for traits that farmers can use to improve domesticated varieties through crossbreeding. [Read more…]