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…]

Agroecosystem Analysis and Agricultural Extension in Cambodia

ID-10045570 (2)The technique of Agroecosystem Analysis (AEA) is discussed in Chapter 11 and is essentially a way of engaging farmers and utilising their knowledge to inform research agendas and development programme design. Chapter 11 outlines the development of AEA in Chiang Mai in Thailand in the 1970s, and now a recent guidance manual authored by the Cambodian Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) outlines the key principles for using AEA in Cambodia.

Commune Agroecosystem Analysis (CAEA) was officially adopted in 2004 as the national policy by MAFF as part of their extension system. CAEA has been conducted in over 500 communes and in 2008 was extended to cover fisheries, which are often closely linked to farming. The programme is funded by the public sector and range of international donors.

CAEA in Cambodia is only one of four pillars around which a national extension service is designed. The others being Technology Implementation Procedures (TIPs); Commune Agricultural Plan (CAP); and Farming Systems Management Information System (FSMIP). The first pillar, CAEA, is used “to identify and prioritize agricultural development needs at the commune level”. The technique uses “multidisciplinary investigation and participatory analysis” to get a picture of the main agroecosystems in each commune, to understand the problems and opportunities food producers face and, as a result, plan appropriate agricultural interventions. [Read more…]