- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A report from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization warns that a lack of diversity in the world’s food sources could loom as an environmental challenge as much as climate change. Ann Tutwiler, chairwoman of Bioversity International USA, spoke on the topic at a recent forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and afterward answered questions from The Washington Times’ Maggie Garred.

Question: How would you define the scope of the biodiversity problem?

Answer: Globally, we obtain more than 50% of our plant-based calories from three crops: wheat, maize and rice. Twelve crops and five animal species account for 75% of the world’s food today. Over the past 50 years, these megacrops, including sugar, have maintained global dominance.

Globally, we are also underproducing and underconsuming a complement of healthier foods: nuts, vegetable proteins, fruits, vegetables. Yet there are over 5,500 plants known to be used for human food — many of them species and varieties with healthy profiles. The Convention on Biological Diversity estimates that over the last century, more than 90% of the cultivated seed varieties have been lost, as well as half of the diversity of domestic animals for human consumption.

The FAO warns that, despite the growing evidence of biodiversity’s key role in food security and nutrition, the diversity of production systems worldwide is in decline. Of thousands of plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output and only nine account for 66% of total crop production. So we are literally putting all our eggs in one basket in terms of global food security.

Q: Is biodiversity loss just as much of a threat as climate change? In what ways?

A: One-third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of global freshwater resources are currently devoted to crop or livestock production. So agriculture’s capacity to shift from being the main driver of land and water degradation, greenhouse gas emitter and contributor to malnutrition to becoming the primary means of resolving multiple global challenges is a major opportunity for policy action. But agriculture has been seen as a shrinking sector in developed countries and the sector of the poor in developing countries, so it has been marginalized in our thinking about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

We depend on agricultural biodiversity for the food we eat every day. We are losing agricultural biodiversity to a combination of factors — consumer demand, agricultural subsidies and climate change — [and] we are also losing options for managing climate change in the future.

Q: Why has biodiversity not been as prominent in our debates as climate change?

A: First, climate science has been able to set a concrete, global target — now, 1.5 degrees Celsius — of warming and [greenhouse gas] emissions that can be allowed without setting off irreversible trends. Setting such a target for an “acceptable” rate of agrobiodiversity loss, or the necessary level of agrobiodiversity, is difficult because agrobiodiversity encompasses managed agriculture — what farmers produce — but also the natural systems that support food: pollinators, soil microbes.

Second, the Convention on Biological Diversity has not been able to mobilize the same kind of attention as the Convention on Climate Change, in part because it has been easier to draw the links between climate change and negative economic impacts.

Third, because agrobiodiversity is multidimensional, you need a multidimensional metric to manage and monitor it. This is where the Agrobiodiversity Index, developed by Bioversity International, comes in. It looks at three dimensions of agrobiodiversity in diets, farming and in conservation across commitments, actions and status. It also looks at what countries and companies are doing to play their part in enhancing the use of agrobiodiversity.

Q: What next steps do nations and individuals need to take in order to diversify?

A: Countries can put in place policies and programs to diversify consumers’ diets, such as incorporating diversity into dietary guidelines and school feeding programs. Countries can provide incentives for diversifying into other crops, including more healthful crops. Countries can support farmers for enhancing the diversity of their soils, which improves soil health. Countries can provide research to alternative crops. And companies can incorporate diversity into their product offerings; they can support farmers in their supply chains to enhance diversity in their fields.

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