AGROBIODIVERSITY IS IN DECLINE, AT THE EXPENSE OF OUR HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT
This story is brought to you in part by Biomass Recycle
By Cori Marshall
Variety is the spice of life, usually taken to mean a diversity of experiences makes life more fulfilling. This also rings true for the environment and the sustainability of our food system according to a new study from Bioversity International.
The book entitled Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems, Scientific Foundations for an Agrobiodiversity Index, found that "of the 7000 edible plant species, just 30 are used to feed the world, [and] tens of thousands of alternatives exist that can grow in difficult conditions, [and] have high nutrient contact."
Plants that can resist a changing climate, and have a high nutrient content is something that society needs, as we have seen rising that co2 levels are lowering nutrient levels in our food crops.
We spoke with Ann Tutwiler, the Director General of Bioversity International, about agrobiodiversity and what can be done to ensure that as wide a range as possible of food crops are produced.
"Agrobiodiversity is basically the foundation of everything we eat," Tutwiler explained. Not only does it consist of "the lentils and canola, it also consists of the different varieties of crops."
For example, the potato, according to the International Potato Center (CIP), "there are more than 4000 varieties of native potatoes." CIP maintains a collection of over "7000 accessions of native, wild, and improved varieties."
Agrobiodiversity is not just about the crops, "it also consists of pollinators and their habitats, the bees and birds that pollinate crops" Tutwiler said. "Finally, it consists of the soil microorganisms that make it healthy" she added.
Tutwiler underlined that "we are relying on 12 crops and 5 animal species to form 3 quarters of our diet, we are balancing our food system on a very narrow range of crops."
"In Bangladesh, in the past, there were 5 000 different varieties of rice being grown, whereas today [there are] only 23" Tutwiler said. And the decline in the diversity of rice being grown is not unique to Bangladesh, "in Korea there used to be 4 000 varieties grown, today there is 12," she added.
"These varieties have different traits in terms of tolerance to cold, heat, and drought conditions," Tutwiler said. Beyond this different varieties may have "resistance to certain types of disease, and different nutritional characteristics not to mention taste," she explained.
As climate change threatens biodiversity, this will play out more in the regions that will be harder hit by this shift. "We also see threats from the narrowing of diets, narrowing of production systems," Tutwiler said. She added that "people are not growing as many varieties" this also means that the varieties that are not being produced are not conserved and do not evolve, and "some of this loss is human induced."
All of this raises the question why have we narrowed our production to this extent? Tutwiler said that "itís a number of different reasons, we have been focusing our attention on providing the most calories per acre and the real drive is narrowing down to the varieties that are going to give the biggest yields."
Tutwiler said that "we need to be looking at a wider set of parameters or goals when looking at our agricultural system, we need to be looking at what is the highest nutritional yield per crop for example." She explained "as plants have been bred for yield increases there has been a tradeoff between nutrition and taste."
Tutwiler used the example of tomatoes that have been bred to travel well, those of us who have bought produce that has travelled thousands of kilometers to the supermarket they arenít always as packed with as much flavour as you would find when it is in season locally.
Biodiversity can help people lead healthier lives, "diet is now the single leading cause of death and disease" Tutwiler said. "People are consuming too much fat and too many calories, and people are not getting enough vitamins and minerals." People should eat a wider range of fruits, vegetables and nuts.
In terms of the health of the land Tutwiler said "healthy soils produce greater yields you get more bang for your buck if you are producing food." She added that "by having healthier soils you reduce erosion thereby improving water quality."
Tutwiler said that "breeding programs since the 1960s have released over 8 000 varieties, that were only in 11 crops," research dollars have been concentrated in a very narrow band.
If the issue of biodiversity is going to be addressed "we need to shift those research funding to more diversified crops" Tutwiler said. There is a role that the people can play in ensuring that our governments guide the development of diverse food systems. Tutwiler said "this has to be driven in large part by consumers, farmer run a business and they are not going to plant things they canít sell." There has to be a state driven policy aspect to having more diverse food crops yet much of this shift is in our hands and how we shop for fresh fruits and vegetables.