Agrobiodiversity –food insurance in an uncertain world

Agrobiodiversity, the variety of plants, animals and micro-organisms vital for food and agriculture, is under threat from the globalization of food production and markets.

Agriculture area beside Mount Elgon National Park, Uganda - a Livelihoods & Landscapes site Photo: Agni Boedhihartono / IUCN

FAO estimates that about 75% of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost during the last century. 20% of animal breeds are at risk of extinction and 190 breeds have already become extinct in the past 15 years.

Losses in agrobiodiversity reduce the overall health of food and agricultural systems and their ability to resist or adapt to extreme weather conditions, climate change, or disease. In addition, there is a loss of nutritional and cultural values, as well as indigenous knowledge and traditional farming systems. Modern food production and market systems tend to marginalize many small, traditional producers, thus increasing poverty.

Just four plant species - wheat, maize, rice and potato – now provide more than half of the plant-based calories in the human diet, while about a dozen animal species provide 90% of animal protein consumed globally. In most developing countries, traditionally home to much of the world’s agrobiodiversity, monoculture has simply pushed out diverse traditional agriculture systems.

Landscapes that are rich in agrobiodiversity are often the result of farming systems that have developed over thousands of years, and have completely adapted to the local environment. These landscapes, the farming practices and the varieties of species farmed, provide social stability and food security, acting as insurance against disease and extreme climate fluctuations, and as a way of coping in times of scarcity. For example, in Kenya, indigenous seeds have been shown to perform better in harsh drought conditions than modern varieties and therefore increase food security.

In order to survive drought and other climatic challenges, indigenous people in the Andes traditionally shared knowledge relating to the climate and remedial agricultural practices such as planting different crops or developing highly advanced irrigation systems. These practices have enabled local resilience to outside forces which threaten food security and nutrition of the poorest people.

The Potato Park, near Cusco in the Andean mountains of Peru, is one example. The Park is managed by local indigenous communities to conserve their landscape, livelihoods, knowledge and way of life, all of which pivots around their unique agrobiodiversity.

The Park is a centre of origin of the potato, which has been cultivated here for 7000 years. Around 1200 traditional varieties of potato are grown in the Park today, along with other Andean food crops such as Quinoa, and livestock, such as guinea pigs and llama. The Park contributes considerably to the food security of the local people, both through local consumption of produce, as well as trade. The trade, which has existed since pre-Inca times, allows local people to sell the carbohydrates and meat they produce and buy in produce grown at lower altitudes that provides vegetable proteins, vitamins and essential fatty acids.

Increased preference for modern technologies, however, has led to marginalization of the indigenous knowledge and way of life, threatening this very resilience and adaptability that is now needed in the face of climate change in particular.



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