Blogs, Systems Thinking

Want to tackle the biodiversity crisis? Start with food systems

With the global biodiversity conference COP15 taking place in my home country of Canada this month, the fundamental relationship between agricultural biodiversity and food systems is top of mind. 

At the Global Alliance, we recognize that agricultural biodiversity is the foundation of resilient and equitable food systems. And yet food systems are the main driver of biodiversity loss, as forests are cleared for food production, harmful chemical-intensive monoculture pollutes ecosystems, and extractive fisheries threaten ocean health. Something is not right. 

The Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that is being negotiated in Montreal is an unprecedented opportunity to address the root causes of biodiversity loss, including the ways we produce and consume food. We need to create new policies, incentives and safeguards that not only preserve biodiversity at large, but also those that strengthen and protect agricultural biodiversity. 

Agricultural biodiversity is like a film with a large ensemble cast: a variety of animals, plants, and microorganisms like fungi and bacteria. All play an important role, whether leading or supporting, in growing the food we eat and maintaining the integrity of surrounding ecosystems. These days, agricultural biodiversity is in decline – a shrinking cast of characters. 

Consider this from FAO’s State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture 2019 report: Of the 6,000 plant species cultivated around the world for food, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output and only nine accounts for 66% of total crop production. Nearly a third of fish stocks are overfished, and more than half have reached their sustainable limit. Our demand for fish as food has put ocean-based biodiversity at risk. And our demand for meat, wheat, corn, soy, and rice is contributing to biodiversity loss and extinction. 

The declining number of species, varieties, and breeds used within our food systems is alarming. So too are the intensive farming practices dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides that erode biodiversity. For this reason, we must integrate ecological processes and practices that enhance biodiversity into decision-making about how we produce food.

Real action towards the biodiversity crisis demands we take the agricultural biodiversity crisis seriously and call for a radical transformation of food systems. What could this look like? I draw inspiration from initiatives creating resilient seed systems that enhance agricultural biodiversity and elevate the knowledge of farmers and Indigenous Peoples. 

Action on agricultural biodiversity loss starts with seeds

Two organizations bring to life this work on seeds and biodiversity: the Community Technology Development Trust (CTDT) in Zimbabwe and Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD) in Nepal. 

In Zimbabwe, CTDT works alongside farmers to register locally adapted varieties of seeds and collect data for the seed registration process. They also advocate for seed policy change – a critical undertaking given that stringent policies currently make it illegal to trade and sell local, unregistered seeds. In a recent discussion, Patrick Kasasa from CTDT described how challenging this work is, with the lack of support from the government and private sector for farmer-managed seed systems, and the mindset shift needed to embrace agricultural biodiversity and support farmer seed systems.  

CTDT is engaged in a global working group convened by Canadian NGO SeedChange, which focuses on participatory plant breeding to support biodiversity management, training, community seed banks, farmers’ rights, and food sovereignty. 

LI-BIRD in Nepal is part of the same initiative and shows the potential for this important work. In the country, farmers have registered many seed varieties and are working across niche environments and ecosystems to maintain the adaptive traits of seeds, such as drought and pest resistance, that help them thrive and meet diverse needs of smallholder farmers. Beyond seed management, these community initiatives in Nepal also engage the government at all levels and have struck private-sector agreements to sell these newly registered varieties of seeds. It’s an example of how a conducive seed policy and law provide space for all actors to work together to protect and strengthen agricultural biodiversity.

The Global Alliance has had a long-standing interest in resilient seed systems with members such as the McKnight Foundation, Christensen Fund, and 11th Hour supporting this work around the world. 

“Dynamic diversity” is the phrase that comes to mind when I think of these examples from Zimbabwe and Nepal. The seeds we sow today must be more adaptable, more resilient, and more diverse to ensure food security into the future. Agricultural biodiversity is not just the number of species or registered varieties of plants – it is the result of knowledge embedded in a web of relations between people and nature, continuously responding to ecological conditions, culinary traditions, and changing markets. Farmers worldwide are the stewards of this knowledge and dynamic diversity. 

To reverse biodiversity loss, we need to look at more than just the economic value of agricultural biodiversity. Instead, philanthropic foundations, farmers, extension officers, private sector players, and policymakers all need to embrace an ecological mindset. Holistic food systems evaluation grounded in this ecological mindset can help and is becoming more widely recognized and used by decision-makers. 

As a global community, we must accelerate the restoration and enhancement of agricultural biodiversity around the world in communities where people fish, farm, live and work. For this, we need an ambitious biodiversity framework and a renewed commitment to its rapid implementation. I look forward to attending COP15 alongside Global Alliance’s partners from around the world. 

Together, we will be urging negotiators to look more holistically at food systems, and integrate agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways as capstones to a bold outcome and global biodiversity framework.

Heading into 2023, we have a critically important but narrow window of time to see promoting and strengthening agricultural biodiversity for what it is: an opportunity to take action on the broader biodiversity crisis and inform a new relationship between people, the planet, and the food we eat. 

– Ends

Lauren Baker
Interim Deputy Director