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The world’s shrinking food basket: Why it is critical we increase crop diversity

Two key words for resilient food systems: genetic diversity and indigenous knowledge.

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Are we becoming  too dependent on the same crops? Photo by Flickr

JEJU, South Korea (21 September, 2012) _ In the 1970’s a fungal blight outbreak ravaged cornfields across the United States, destroying 50 percent of the country’s maize crops and shaking the stock market as the most economically devastating field crop disease of the 20th century.

Last week, the U.S. government slashed its forecast for corn production by 17 percent due to the worst drought the country has experenced in 56 years, raising fears of a new global food crisis and sending many commodity prices to record levels.

While the two events may be 40 years apart and have different natural causes, the outcomes are much the same, argued scientists from Bioversity International at the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Jeju, South Korea this week.

“The food security of the world relies on thousands of species. Unfortunately commercialisation of mainstream agriculture has concentrated on very few of those crops, which raises serious concerns about the sustainability of feeding the world today and in the future,” said Stefano Padulosi, senior scientist on neglected and underutilised species at Bioversity International.

Furthermore, industrial agriculture is consuming resources, contributing pollutants, and degrading resilient landscapes at levels that exceed the earth system’s planetary boundaries according to Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

The world’s food basket is today shrinking at an alarming rate. Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation tells us that about 20-30 crops today feed the world, with sixty percent of our plant-based calorie intake provided by rice, wheat and maize.

Traditional crops such as Andean grains or leafy African vegetables are being increasingly ignored – farmers no longer see them as profitable, consumers are excluding them from their increasingly simplified diets, agricultural research is omitting them from their agendas and local communities are losing the food culture which is part of their identities.

“But with climate change putting increasing strain on our food systems, diversity of our food crops will be critical for resilient food systems,” Padulosi said.

In the case of the blight outbreak, resistance was found in a crop-wild relative, explained Carlo Fadda, Senior Scientist Genetic Diversity at Bioversity International.

“The wild relatives of crop plants are an increasingly important resource for improving agricultural production and for maintaining sustainable agro-ecosystems,” he said at a workshop profiling research on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry lead by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“With the advent of climate change and greater ecosystem instability crop wild relatives are likely to prove a critical resource in ensuring food security for the new millennium.”

Genetic material from crop wild relatives have been utilised by humans for thousands of years to improve the quality and yield of crops. For example wild maize is routinely grown alongside cultivated maize to improve yields. But while crop wild relatives have contributed many useful genes to crop plants, little has been done to document and monitor the biodiversity of cultivated crop species.

“While we deploy consistent efforts in monitoring the status of wild biodiversity (such as the IUCN red list of threatened wild species), very little research in monitoring the diversity of cultivated plants and domesticated animals used by farmers in helping them cope with climate change,” said Padulosi.

“There is a need for the world today to develop ways to monitor food crop diversity that sustain humankind.”

With this in mind, a team of researchers supported by International Fund for Agricultural Development and the CGIAR Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Programme are working with local communities in Nepal, India and Bolivia to develop and test out novel approaches to developing a Red list of cultivated species and implement a long term locally-controlled monitoring program.

They asked communities to identify different crop and tree species, assess how these species are being used in their cultural context and group them according to area of land under their cultivation and number of households cultivating the species. During these community-based participatory assessments, an initial list of lost varieties was developed, validated at the regional and national level through diversity and seed fairs, visits to other communities, surveys and other means.

This approach will allow researchers and policymakers to ‘raise the red flag’ whenever a decline in use of a variety goes below a certain level and its benefits (nutritional, income generation, etc) are thus no longer reaching the community members at large.   

“We found that the key word for resilient food systems is not just genetic diversity but also ‘indigenous knowledge,” Padulosi said.

“But there has been a tremendous erosion of this knowledge and we need to develop approaches, methods and tools for its safeguard in which women will have to be particularly supported in view of their strategic role as the nexus between the cultivation and the use of agricultural biodiversity at the household level.”

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One of the key challenges that small-scale farmers face is internationally, is the amount of agricultural subsidies that are given to big-scale and industrial agricultural farmers, said Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, Founder and Director of the indigenous rights NGO Tebtebba in a workshop organised by Bioversity International at the World Conservation Congress.

“Almost one billion dollars a day goes to the rich farmers of the world to continue promoting the type of agriculture that has brought us to this crisis that we face now,” she said.

Farm subsidies are intended to alleviate farmer poverty, but the majority of subsidies go to commercial farms with average incomes of $200,000 and net worth of nearly $2 million. More than 90 percent of all subsidies in the USA go to just five crops — wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, and rice — while the vast majority of crops are ineligible for subsidies.

“These subsidies have pushed governments to be engaged more in this kind of agriculture instead of supporting the small-scale sustainable agriculture that is being done and that is more ecologically sustainable and promotes more social equity,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

The link between biodiversity, food production and the long-term perspectives of indigenous communities that identify with the land needs to be more closely considered by policymakers, said Pablo Eyzaguirre, a senior scientist in anthropology and socioeconomics at Bioversity International.

“Biodiversity hotspots and the world’s protected areas are also centres of crop domestication and diversity,” he said.

“The farming communities and indigenous people that manage these landscapes are still innovating and maintaining the diversity the world needs to cope with change and produce enough healthy food.”

As Patrick Holden, the farmer and soil scientist who heads the Sustainable Food Trust, said: “No one wants to go back to the debate of conservation versus agriculture — a nice world or a well-fed world. I think we’re headed off a cliff if both sides don’t start seeing things differently.”

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Topic(s) :   Food security Food & diets