Harnessing aguricultural biodiversity for improved nutritional quality, more effective climate change adaptation and better rural livelihoods
In the face of grave and mounting threats to food and nutrition security ? land degradation, climate change
and economic inequality ? the challenge of facilitating pathways to healthy, sustainable livelihoods,
communities and diets has never been greater, nor more urgent.
Old approaches are no longer fit for purpose. We need new approaches that harness improved nutritional
quality, more effective climate change adaptation and better rural livelihoods.
The calculated formulas that gave us the Green Revolution ? simply increasing yields and producing more
food and more calories through a limited set of crops ? are no longer sufficient. In order to address food
security around the world, today’s formula requires us to look at food production differently ? what we
produce, how we produce more and where we produce it, as well as how we market and consume it ? all
under changing climatic conditions.
Here, a focus on biodiversity is key.
Biodiversity has been recognized in the endorsement of the 2030 international development agenda, The
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). World leaders have agreed the vital importance biodiversity has
for our planet and our lives through Goal 15* of the 17 proposed SDGs. Furthermore, there is increasing
recognition that using and safeguarding biodiversity can deliver on multiple sustainable development goals,
which demonstrates the vital role of mainstreaming biodiversity into other key targets.
In recent years Bioversity International has been finding that more diverse agricultural ecosystems, with more
species or more genetic diversity within species, offer a multiplicity of benefits that work together to support
improved nutritional quality, more effective climate change adaptation and better rural livelihoods, all of
which are key to the current development agenda.
Our research points to the benefits that can be reaped by revisiting the what, how and where of food
production ? and in particular by establishing methods for the sustainable use of our most important natural
resource: genetic diversity.
When looking at the what we produce, it is interesting to note that there are over 7,000 known edible plant
species; yet, currently 50% of the world’s calories come from just three crops ? rice, wheat and maize. This
focus has failed to address the importance of nutritional diversity. Today, more than twice as many people
suffer from micronutrient deficiencies as from hunger, while the number of overweight adults in developing
countries tripled between 1980 and 2008. Genetic diversity, if used wisely, can help to tackle malnutrition by
increasing dietary diversity.
The how we produce highlights the need to produce more food while sustainably using natural resources such
as land and water. In recent years research has shown that that more diverse ecosystems, with more species
or more genetic diversity within species, often have higher overall productivity than systems based on fewer
varieties. They can also be associated with greater stability of yield?higher-diversity plots have been shown
to be up to 70% more stable than monocultures. Genetic diversity can also reduce the risk of crop failure in
high stress environments.
Finally, we need to look at where we produce more food. As the greater proportion of the expected population
increase will take place in the developing countries, we must produce more food in these regions. It happens
that most of the world’s remaining agricultural biodiversity is found in these developing countries, maintained
largely by smallholder farmers: the custodians of biodiversity. For most of these farmers, diversification
provides a risk management strategy, offering inbuilt increased resistance to pests and diseases, climate
variability and extreme weather phenomena. Our work suggests that supporting their efforts, and investing
in more research into crops that can withstand the rigors of climate change and environmental stress, will be
critical to development objectives.
There are several examples of how Bioversity International’s research demonstrates the gains from increasing
biodiversity within agricultural systems.
In Zambia, we are working with local communities to test a diversity of crops and wild foods that have the potential to contribute to an all-year round healthy diet, and to adapt to local conditions. This research is
supported by educational materials about healthy sustainable diets, as well as a seasonal food calendar that
shows which foods are available all year round, including the hunger season.
Since 2006 we have been working with national partners in China, Ecuador, Morocco and Uganda to
investigate the effects of planting different varieties of the same crop in mixtures. Recent findings from
trials with the National Agricultural Research Organization in Uganda show that mixing varieties resistant to
certain pests and diseases ? many of which are local varieties ? with those that are more susceptible, greatly
reduces the incidence of that pest or disease. For bananas, for example, farmers reported a 75% reduction in
the presence of weevils when they used crop mixtures.
Learning from these lessons requires that we now give greater attention and support to public and private
efforts that promote the understanding, development and augmentation of agricultural biodiversity where it is
most needed. We need to explore new institutional frameworks and mechanisms for the equitable distribution
of benefits at local, national and global level. And we need to push for policies that incentivize enhanced
agricultural biodiversity, and that can therefore lead to measurable improvements in the nutritional quality of
diets; the yield and resilience of crops in changing conditions, the health of communities; and the security of
* SDG 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests,
combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
|Date of issued|
climate change adaptation
|Publisher||Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences|
|Rights||Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences|