WHAT IS AGROBIODIVERSITY?

Agrobiodiversity is the result of natural selection processes and the careful selection and inventive developments of farmers, herders and fishers over millennia. Agrobiodiversity is a vital sub-set of biodiversity. Many people’s food and livelihood security rely on the sustained management of various biological resources that are important for food and agriculture. Agricultural biodiversity, also called agrobiodiversity or the genetic resources for food and agriculture, includes:





What has agricultural biodiversity ever done for us?
Agriculture biodiversity

  • Harvested crop varieties, livestock breeds, fish species and non domesticated (wild) resources within field, forest, range land including tree products, wild animals hunted for food and in aquatic ecosystems (e.g. wild fish);

  • Non-harvested species in production ecosystems that support food provision, including soil micro-biota, pollinators and other insects such as bees, butterflies, earthworms, greenflies; and

  • Non-harvested species in the wider environment that support food production ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic ecosystems).  


Building on Gender, Agrobiodiversity and Local Knowledge – A ...


Agrobiodiversity is the outcome of the interaction between the environment, genetic resources and management systems and practices used by culturally diverse peoples, and therefore land and water resources are used for production in different ways. Consequently, agrobiodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of animals, plants, and micro-organisms that are necessary for sustaining major functions of the agro-ecosystem, including its structure and processes for, and in support of, food production and food security (FAO, 1999a). Local knowledge and culture can, therefore, be considered as integral parts of agrobiodiversity because it is the human activity of agriculture that shapes and conserves this biodiversity.

A DEFINITION OF AGROBIODIVERSITY
The variety and variability of animals, plants, and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry, and fisheries. It comprises the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds) and species used for food, fodder, fiber, fuel, and pharmaceuticals. It also comprises the diversity of non-harvested species that support production (soil micro-organisms, predators, pollinators), and those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic) as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems.
Source: FAO, 1999a


Many farmers, mostly those in environments where high-yield crop and livestock varieties do not prosper, rely on a wide range of crop and livestock types. This helps them support their livelihood in the face of pathogen infestation, uncertain rainfall and fluctuation in the price of cash crops, socio-political disruption and the unpredictable availability of agro-chemicals. So-called minor or underutilized crops, more accurately, companion crops, are frequently found next to the main staple or cash crops. They often grow side by side and their importance is often misjudged. In many cases, from a livelihoods perspective, they are not minor or underutilized as they can play a disproportionately important role in food production systems at the local level. Plants that will grow in infertile or eroded soils, and livestock that will eat degraded vegetation, are often critical to household nutritional strategies. In addition, rural communities, and the urban markets with which they trade, make great use of these companion crop species


COLLECTION OF WILD PLANTS FOR HOUSEHOLD CONSUMPTION
 
In Burkina Faso, and throughout the West African Sahel, rural women carefully collect the fruit, leaves, and roots of native plants such as the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata), red sorrel leaves (Hibiscus saddarifa), kapok leaves (Ceiba pentandra) and tigernut tubers (Cyperus esculentus L.) for use in the families’ diet. These supplements the agricultural grains (millet, sorghum) that furnish only one part of the nutritional spectrum and may fail in any given year. Over 800 species of edible wild plants have been cataloged across the Sahel.
 
Source: IK Notes No. 23. 2000.




There are several distinctive features of agrobiodiversity, compared to other components of biodiversity:

  • Agrobiodiversity is actively managed by male and female farmers;

  • many components of agrobiodiversity would not survive without this human interference; local knowledge and culture are integral parts of agrobiodiversity management;

  • many economically important agricultural systems are based on ‘alien’ crop or livestock species introduced from elsewhere (for example, horticultural production systems or Friesian cows in Africa). This creates a high degree of interdependence between countries for the genetic resources on which our food systems are based;

  • as regards crop diversity, diversity within species is at least as important as diversity between species;

  • because of the degree of human management, conservation of agrobiodiversity in production systems is inherently linked to sustainable use – preservation through establishing protected areas is less relevant; and

  • in industrial-type agricultural systems, much crop diversity is now held ex situ in gene banks or breeders’ materials rather than on-farm.

An epitome of the key roles of agrobiodiversity is provided in the following Box. Not all the roles listed will be relevant in any given situation. However, this list may serve as a checklist to prioritize those that are crucial in a project/work situation.

THE ROLE OF AGROBIODIVERSITY

Experience and research have shown that agrobiodiversity can:

 * Increase productivity, food security, and economic returns

* Reduce the pressure of agriculture on fragile areas, forests and endangered species

* Make farming systems more stable, robust, and sustainable

* Contribute to sound pest and disease management

* Conserve soil and increase natural soil fertility and health

* Contribute to sustainable intensification

* Diversify products and income opportunities

* Reduce or spread risks to individuals and nations

* Help maximize effective use of resources and the environment

* Reduce dependency on external inputs

* Improve human nutrition and provide sources of medicines and vitamins, and

* Conserve ecosystem structure and stability of species diversity.

 (Adapted from Thrupp, 1997)



Locally varied food production systems are under threat, including local knowledge and the culture and skills of women and men farmers. With this downturn, agrobiodiversity is disappearing; the scale of the loss is extensive. With the disappearance of harvested species, varieties and breeds, a wide range of unharvested species also disappear.


100 YEARS OF AGRICULTURAL CHANGE: SOME TRENDS AND FIGURES RELATED TO AGROBIODIVERSITY
 
* Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been misplaced as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.
 
* 30 percent of livestock breeds are at risk of vanishing; six breeds are lost each month.
 
* Today, 75 percent of the world’s food is created from only 12 plants and five animal species.
 
* Of the 4 percent of the 250 000 to 300 000 known edible plant species, only 150 to 200 are used by humans. Only three – rice, maize, and wheat – come up with nearly 60 percent of calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants.
 
* Animals provide some 30 percent of human requirements for food and agriculture and 12 percent of the world’s population live almost wholly on products from ruminants.
 
Source: FAO. 1999b


More than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields; half of the breeds of many domestic animals have been lost. In fisheries, all the world’s 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits, with many fish populations fruitfully becoming extinct. Loss of forest cover, coastal wetlands, other ‘wild’ uncultivated areas, and the destruction of the aquatic environment exacerbate the genetic erosion of agrobiodiversity.

Fallow fields and wildlands can keep large numbers of species useful to farmers. Furthermore supplying calories and protein, wild foods supply vitamins and other essential micro-nutrients. In general, poor households rely on access to wild foods more than the wealthier (see Table 1). However, in some areas, pressure on the land is so great that wild food supplies have been exhausted.

The term ‘wild-food’, though commonly used, is confusing because it implies the absence of human influence and management. Over time, people have indirectly shaped many plants. Some have been domesticated in home gardens and in the fields jointly with farmers’ cultivated food and cash crops. The term ‘wild-food’, therefore, is used to describe all plant resources that are harvested or collected for human consumption outside agricultural areas in forests, savannah, and other bushland areas. Wild-foods are assimilated into the normal livelihood strategies of many rural people, pastoralists, shifting cultivators, continuous croppers, or hunter-gatherers. Wild-food is usually considered as a dietary supplement to farmers’ daily food consumption, generally based on their crop harvest, domestic livestock products, and food purchases on local markets. For example, fruits and berries, from a wide range of wild-growing plants, are typically referred to as ‘wild-food’. Furthermore, wild fruits and berries add crucial vitamins to the normal vitamin deficient Ethiopian cereal diet, particularly for children.

[Table 1]

Proportion of food from wild products for poor, medium and relatively wealthy households

Survey site

Date

Very Poor %

Middle %

Better off %

* Wollo – Dega, Ethiopia

1999

0-10

0-10

0-5

* Jaibor, Sudan

1997

15

5

2-5

* Chitipa, Malawi

1997

0-10

0-10

0-5

* Ndoywo, Zimbabwe

1997

0-5

0

0


Source: Biodiversity in development (IUCN/DFID, No date)

There are many causes for this decline in agrobiodiversity. Throughout the twentieth century, the decline has accelerated, along with increased demands from a growing population and greater competition for natural resources. The principal underlying causes include

  • The rapid expansion of industrial and Green Revolution agriculture. This comprises intensive livestock production, industrial fisheries, and aquaculture. Some production systems use genetically improved varieties and breeds. In addition, relatively few crop varieties are cultivated in monocultures and a limited number of domestic animal breeds, or fish, are reared or few aquatic species cultivated.

  • Globalization of the food system and marketing. The extension of industrial patenting, and other intellectual property systems, to living organisms, has led to the extensive cultivation and rearing of fewer varieties and breeds. This results in a more uniform, less diverse, but more competitive global market. Due to which there have been:

    * changes in farmers’ and consumers’ perceptions, preferences and living conditions;

    * marginalization of small-scale, diverse food production systems that conserve farmers’ varieties of crops and breeds of domestic animals;

    * reduced integration of livestock in arable production, which reduces the diversity of uses for which livestock are needed; and,

    * reduced use of ‘nurture’ fisheries techniques that conserve and develop aquatic biodiversity.

  • The principal cause of the genetic erosion of crops – as reported by almost all countries – is the replacement of local varieties by improved or exotic varieties and species. Frequently, genetic erosion occurs as old varieties in farmers’ fields are replaced by newer. Genes and gene complexes, found in the many farmers’ varieties, are not contained in the modern. Often, the number of varieties is reduced when commercial varieties are introduced into traditional farming systems. While FAO (1996) expressed that some indicators of genetic erosion have been developed, few systematic studies of the genetic erosion of crop genetic diversity have been made. Moreover, in the FAO Country Reports (1996) nearly all countries confirm genetic erosion is taking place and that it is a serious problem.


Key points

  • Agrobiodiversity is a essential subset of biodiversity, which is developed and actively managed by farmers, herders, and fishers.
  • Many components of agrobiodiversity would not live without this human interference; local knowledge and culture are integral parts of agrobiodiversity management.
  • Many economically major agricultural systems are based on ‘alien’ crop or livestock species introduced from elsewhere (for example, horticultural production systems or Friesian cows in Africa). This creates a high degree of interdependence between countries for the genetic resources on which our food systems are based.
  • In respect of crop diversity, diversity within species is at least as important as diversity between species.
  • Locally diverse food production systems are under threat and, with them, the accompanying local knowledge, culture, and skills of the food producers.
  • The loss of forest cover, coastal wetlands, ‘wild’ uncultivated areas and the destruction of the aquatic environment exacerbate the genetic erosion of agrobiodiversity.
  • The chief cause of genetic erosion in crops, as reported by almost all countries is the replacement of local varieties by improved or exotic varieties and species.

References

FAO. 1996. Global plan of action for the conservation and sustainable utilization of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Leipzig, Germany, June 1996.

FAO. 1999a. Agricultural Biodiversity, Multifunctional Character of Agriculture and Land Conference, Background Paper 1. Maastricht, Netherlands. September 1999.

FAO. 1999b. Women: users, preservers, and managers of agrobiodiversity (available at www.fao.org/FOCUS/E/Women/Biodiv-e.htm).

IK Notes, No 23. August 2000. Seeds of life: Women and agricultural biodiversity in Africa.

IUCN/ DFID. (No date). Biodiversity in development, Biodiversity Brief No. 6. The United Kingdom. (available at www.iucn.org/themes/wcpa/pubs/pdfs/biodiversity/biodiv_brf_06.pdf).

Thrupp, L.A. 1997. Linking biodiversity and agriculture: Challenges and opportunities for sustainable food security. World Resources Institute, USA.

ü  Additional background papers

ü  Thrupp, L.A. 1998. The central role of agricultural biodiversity: Trends and challenges. In Conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity. Manila, CIP-UPWARD in partnership with GTZ, IDRC, IPGRI and SERVICE.

IK Notes No. 23. August 2000. Seeds of life: Women and agricultural biodiversity in Africa



It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for 

– the whole thing – rather than just one or two stars. 

David Attenborough

























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