Why agrobiodiversity matters for sustainable food systems?

We all know that our food systems need to be transformed. Global food production is the single largest driver of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Agriculture uses about 80% of freshwater and unsustainable practices such as use of synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals pollute our air, water and soils. Agriculture accounts for 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change, which in turn disrupts pollination and causes crop failure, affecting food security. Agriculture also drives increased conversion of forests and other natural habitats into crop lands, leading to biodiversity loss. The paradox is that food production is also the biggest victim of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. Today, we produce large quantities of food, but not enough diverse and nutritious food. The 2019 FAO State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture reports that food diversity has been declining worldwide. Of the more than 6000 plants and animals used for food in the past, only 200 currently contribute to global food supplies and only 9 account for 70% of total crop production.

Less biodiversity in food and agriculture leaves farmers with fewer options to deal with crop failure, pests and diseases, declining soil fertility and increasingly variable weather. This causes production losses, increasing food insecurity. Less biodiversity in food and agriculture also means more simplified, homogenous and unbalanced human diets, which increase risks of malnutrition and non-communicable diseases, the main cause of premature death today. Today, more than 820 million people still suffer from hunger and about 2 billion people are obese or overweight. The way we produce and consume our food is clearly hurting both people and the planet. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the limitations of our current food system and is pushing us to reflect on the changes we need to make to achieve a food system that adequately nourishes people, sustains the planet, while providing resilient livelihoods. How can we do that?

Agrobiodiversity is a critical lever of change to help fix that. Agrobiodiversity – the wealth of plants, animals and microorganisms used for food and agriculture – has a critical role to play in the transformation, towards more sustainable – and resilient – food systems. This diversity – which results from thousands of years of interactions among people and the environment – is a key component of healthy diets and human health. Food biodiversity is crucial to fight malnutrition and diet-related diseases. A diverse diet increases the likelihood of consuming adequate amounts of the full range of nutrients essential to human health.

In agricultural production, agrobiodiversity supports long-term productivity, resilience and multiple ecosystem services, boosting yields in quality and quantity, increasing soil and water quality, and reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. It also makes farmers’ livelihoods more resilient, reducing yield losses due to climate change and pest damage. Broadening the types of cultivated plants is also good for the environment, increasing the abundance of pollinators and beneficial soil organisms, and reducing the risk of pest epidemics. Agricultural biodiversity also keeps open options for unknown future needs, when conserved. This can happen in genebanks as well as on farms, which helps to reproduce agrobiodiversity by using it in the fields and to conserve local knowledge, ecosystem interactions and the processes that underpin this dynamic conservation of genetic diversity.

Our theory of change

Despite its importance, little is known about the state of agrobiodiversity across the world. Evidence of commitments made and actions taken to use and conserve this biodiversity is also scarce. As a result, agrobiodiversity is often completely left out from dietary guidelines, agricultural and environmental policies, biodiversity assessments and global monitoring efforts.

Improving access to data and knowledge on agrobiodiversity can trigger behaviour change at the individual, corporate, country and global levels, and help reintroduce agrobiodiversity in our food systems to make them more sustainable. In our era of data-overload, food system actors, such as government, companies and development agencies, need tools to make decisions, which cut through complexity and are based on evidence. They also need support to understand how they are doing, if they are making progress or can do better, and how they compare with their peers.

By detecting agrobiodiversity-related risks and opportunities, the Agrobiodiversity Index aims to help public and private decision makers to better manage and use agrobiodiversity in our food systems, leading to increased sustainability. The Agrobiodiversity Index brings together data about the agrobiodiversity that people sell and eat, cultivate, and conserve, to give novel insights into food system functioning. The tool is innovative because:

  1. It measures biodiversity across three domains usually disconnected: nutrition, agriculture and genetic resources.
  2. It employs new technologies such as text mining to gauge the level of commitment to agrobiodiversity-based solutions.
  3. It is action oriented, aiming to identify good practices that food system actors are already implementing to use and safeguard agrobiodiversity as well as areas for improvement.

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