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…]

Ecological Intensification: More food and a healthier environment.

By Alice Marks

An agroecosystem. Credit: S. Carrière, IRD

An agroecosystem. Credit: S. Carrière, IRD

It is no secret that natural resources such as water, nutrients, land and also biodiversity, are increasingly threatened by the changing climate and inefficient farming practices. Farmers often rely on these resources in order to produce food, so it is worrying to see them routinely diminished. Agriculture requires that natural ecosystems are modified and manipulated to better produce food, creating agroecosystems. However, the development of agroecosystems does not need to come at the cost of the environment. All people rely on natural resources, but these risk being damaged and depleted if current agricultural methods continue to be used. In order to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050, food systems must be re-imagined to incorporate more sustainable practices

Methods of producing food need to be more efficient and less environmentally costly. Ecological intensification aims to help agriculture become more sustainable by both using and protecting natural resources intensively but efficiently, in order that environmental impacts are minimised. [Read more…]

Forest and home gardens

By Katy Wilson

forest garden

Sometimes called kitchen gardens or forest gardens, home gardens are found in many humid and sub-humid parts of the world and are an important strategy for tackling poor nutrition and diets. Comprising of a wealth of plant and animal species they ensure a mix of foods are available to a household, while also forming a resilient agricultural and ecological system. A report for the International Institute for Environment and Development discusses the characterisation of home gardens, their prevalence and challenges. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Tropical forest losses outpace UN estimates, Nature

Ten things the G7 needs to hear on Hunger, Welthungerhilfe

Food Waste Is Becoming Serious Economic and Environmental Issue, Report Says, The New York Times

Bill Gates: Can GMOs end hunger in Africa?, The Verge

A Modest Proposal for Feeding Africa, Huffington Post

Food security in Africa needs a tailored approach, suggests new research, EurekAlert

Beans could help fill Africa’s fertiliser gap, SciDev.Net

Healthy Food for a Healthy World: Wasted Food, Wasted Nutrients, Global Food for Thought [Read more…]

Advocating strategies for agricultural transformation: FAO and AfDB

ID-100207881On the 29th September 2014 two events laid out global and African strategies for agriculture and food security. At its 24th session, the Committee on Agriculture (COAG), one of FAO’s Governing Bodies providing overall guidance on policies relating to agriculture, livestock, food safety, nutrition, rural development and natural resource management, met to discuss a wide range of issues, including family farming and sustainable agriculture.

Opening the event, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, emphasised the broad range of options needed to transform global food systems and that a paradigm shift is needed to make agriculture sustainable. In particular a departure from “an input intensive model”. We need to reduce the use of agricultural inputs such as water and fertilizer and look to new solutions. Such approaches as agroecology, climate-smart agriculture and biotechnology were used as examples of alternatives to the current system but that their use should be based on evidence, science and local context. The FAO’s director-general made the urgency of making agriculture more sustainable for the long term clear, noting that food production needs to grow by 60% by 2050 to meet the demands of a population of 9 billion people.

From some camps the conference was a step in the right direction towards embracing agroecology as too was the recent FAO International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security. Indeed about 70 scientists and scholars of sustainable agriculture and food systems sent an open letter praising the FAO for convening the event. Seen as both a science and a social movement, agroecology is gaining momentum, now helped by support from the FAO, in particular by their moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture and agricultural research and support for the scientific evidence behind agroecology. The letter called for the FAO, its member states and the international community to launch a UN system-wide initiative on agroecology as the main strategy for addressing climate change and building resilience. The letter closes with a hope that the FAO will consider this proposal at the forthcoming Committee on World Food Security meeting on the 13th to 18th October 2014.

Danilo Medina, president of the Dominican Republic, also spoke at COAG 2014 of food as a universal right and of the dire need to transform the rural economy. The Dominican Republic has been particularly successful in reducing hunger from over 34% in 1990 to under 15% today. Since the current government came into power rural poverty has also been reduced 9%, linked to the doubling of the volume of agricultural loans and re-design of loan instruments to benefit smallholders, and the use of surprise visits to farming communities by officials in order to increase understanding and engage with smallholders, in particular around forming cooperatives. As noted by Graziano da Silva, this type of political commitment at the highest levels of government is critical to achieving national food security. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Agricultural science is the backbone of sustainable development, Thomson Reuters Foundation

New Generation of GM Crops Puts Agriculture in a ‘Crisis Situation’, Wired

Amped-up plants, Nature

Moral Hazard? ‘Mega’ public-private partnerships in African agriculture, Oxfam

The African Landscapes Action Plan, Landscapes for People, Food and Nature

Closing the Gap for Post-2015: New Ambition for Acute Malnutrition, Huffington Post

UN: only small farmers and agroecology can feed the world, The Ecologist

The Time Has Come for Agroecology, IPS

Is FAO opening a window for ecological farming?, Greenpeace

How to equip farmers for climate change, CNN

Climate-smart agriculture: balancing trade-offs in food systems and ecosystems, CCAFS

Commodities: Cereal excess, Financial Times [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

The future of DFID, partnerships, aid and INGOs, c/o Alex Evans, From Poverty to Power

GE Critics Range as Skeptics. Groups Offer Scientific Panel a Range of Suggestions to Study Biotech Foods, The Progressive Farmer

Scientists praise and challenge FAO on agroecology, IATP

The Expanding Possibilities of Family Farmers, Roger Thurow

Cross-bred crops get fit faster, Nature

World hunger falls, but 805 million still chronically undernourished, FAO

Beyond Plant Breeding: Agro-Ecological Solutions for Climate-Smart Agriculture, Global Food for Thought

Documents reveal how poultry firms systematically feed antibiotics to flocks, Reuters

African Green Revolution Forum: Matters arising, Peoples Daily

Super bananas – world first human trial, Queensland University of Technology

ROUND-UP:Can Ban Ki-moon’s summit help build a global movement for climate action?, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Seafood labels and sourcing to become clearer thanks to new code, The Guardian

Not so mega? The risky business of large-scale public-private partnerships in African agriculture, From Poverty to Power