Linking agriculture and biodiversity can help feed the planet

18 June 2013 | Article

By Emile A. Frison, Director General of Bioversity International, Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of IUCN and Kanayo F. Nwanze, IFAD - International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Agricultural biodiversity is the basis of our life on Earth. It is also the basis of healthy and resilient ecosystems. Yet it is under threat. Biodiversity provides more options for dietary diversity, can help smallholder farmers grow more food and earn more income, while protecting the natural resource base upon which their—and our—lives depend. It is time to redesign farms as productive, healthy, resilient ecosystems that conserve diversity within a broad landscape that provides food.

Conserving biodiversity makes nutritional, ecological and economic sense. Targeted development projects can leverage these benefits to reduce hunger and poverty. For example, ancient grains high in quality proteins and rich in micronutrients such as quinoa and finger millets have been grown for generations, but in some places farmers were struggling to conserve and use these grains because there were limited markets. From 2001 to 2010, an international effort supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and coordinated by Bioversity International in Bolivia, Peru and India helped to enhance the sustainable conservation and use of such underutilized species, in order to unlock their potential value for income generation and nutrition.

Bioversity International and its national and local partners researched high-yielding Andean grain varieties, reintroduced lost species, ensured a wide diversity of genetic resources were preserved in seed banks, and introduced technologies to process grains for markets. The result was not only improved livelihoods but enhancement of cultural identity for communities.

When farmers are linked to value chains, they can reach markets for these primary grains, which are transformed into processed foods that are highly in demand. Rural people living in poverty are important custodians of biodiversity and have found ingenious ways of utilizing it sustainably. When they achieve higher incomes through these activities it creates an incentive to conserve biodiversity sustainably.

In Uganda, the forest-dwelling Benet people have been deriving their livelihoods from the forested landscape of Mount Elgon for hundreds of years. In 1983 the Ugandan Government declared Mount Elgon a National Park, evicted the Benet communities and resettled them outside the forest. The park subsequently experienced land degradation, while communities that had looked after the Park’s natural resources for generations suffered from marginalization and increasing poverty.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) worked with the government, local communities and district authorities to realize a new vision for the Mount Elgon area, which included better-defined use and access rights for communities within the national park. After this new model replaced the exclusionary approach, harvesting of wild resources for food helped diversify and improve local diets. It also benefited Park management, with an 80% reduction in incidences of illegal timber extraction. In the buffer zone around the Park, IUCN helped communities apply their own by-laws to improve land-use decision-making. Communities elected to stop open access herding of cattle, which enabled simple but effective soil conservation techniques to be applied.

The preliminary results demonstrate that local communities have increased their incomes by more than 100% through collection and marketing of wild honey, a two-fold increase in milk production and vegetable gardening, and harvesting of two (rather than one) agriculture crops per season from the rich volcanic soils.

There are many other examples of farmers, scientists and policy-makers working together to re-establish traditional land management regimes where agriculture and conservation practices co-exist and complement each other. This can improve productivity, reduce fossil energy dependency, increase efficiency in plant nutrient utilization, improve water management, and contain the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

These positive examples demonstrate that it is time to take a landscape perspective on agriculture and natural resources: a more pragmatic approach involving community-based natural resource management, strong partnerships and flexibility.

In 2012, the IUCN World Conservation Congress delivered a ‘Call to Action for Agriculture and Conservation to Work Together.’ The conservation and agriculture sectors will need to collaborate if we are to find long-term sustainable solutions to food and nutrition security and preservation of biodiversity. We need commitment from partners and funders to a common vision, and decision-makers need to rethink policies separating the two agendas.

The major actors in conservation and agriculture are recognizing the critical contribution that biodiversity makes to human livelihoods, food and nutrition. However, we need a deeper understanding of how social, ecological, commercial and financial sectors, as well as cultural movements, can mobilize biodiversity’s contribution to food security and poverty reduction, particularly in view of climate change threats. Biodiversity can be both safeguarded and put to use within a sustainable and resilient agriculture that meets multiple needs: food production, environmental restoration and preservation, and improved livelihood for rural people.

The momentum for a new agricultural paradigm began at the 2012 IUCN World Conservation Congress where Bioversity and The Christensen Fund co-organized a plenary panel discussion and workshop facilitated by Ken Wilson from the Christensen Fund. This workshop ‘From Competition to Collaboration between Agriculture and Conservation’ was the impetus for partnerships that are continuing this effort.

Bioversity International, IFAD and IUCN are coming together with thought leaders in agriculture, conservation, public entities and industry to support a new paradigm in agriculture and sustainable development. Through CGIAR research programs, Bioversity is developing a research model of agriculture with smallholder farmers and partners that maximizes agricultural sustainability, productivity and conservation objectives, emphasizing the bridge between agriculture and conservation with biodiversity as a key link.

Our common vision is a global agricultural system that meets the challenge of transforming food systems while building resilience to climate change. This is especially vital for the regions of the world where large rural populations living in poverty rely on agriculture and ecosystems for their livelihoods.

Cross-sectoral cooperation will be vital to addressing shared global challenges now and in the future, including within the context of the post-2015 development agenda. We need to work together to ensure that biodiversity is recognized as key to tackling major issues such as food and nutrition security, climate change, human health, and poverty.

Learn more about the Agriculture and Conservation Initiative at www.bioversityinternational.org.

This article first appeared on the Sustainability portal of thomsonreuters.com which combines insight from across the company, and from a valued community of external partners.