Leveraging agrobiodiversity: a recipe for food forever and happily ever after

“Variety is the very spice of life, which gives it all its flavour” wrote William Cowper in his poem “TheTask”.

Endless repetition gets very boring and even depressing, at least it gets for me. And who doesn’t like to try something new every once in a while?  In fact, our brain develops better in a diverse and dynamic environment. Leveraging diversity enables us to accomplish great things together, doing it with excitement and fascination.

So why then have we been persistently getting rid of diversity in our food? It is hard to comprehend the fact that out of more than 5000 crops used for food throughout history only 12, along with five animal species, provide 75% of the world’s food today. And only three crops – maize, rice and wheat – provide more than a half of all the world’s calories from plants. No wonder our food system is at risk of breaking down.

A number of new initiatives are emerging to try to change the situation. Seed banks, plant-breeding programs, and organizations promoting crop diversity are part of piecemeal efforts to expand the varieties of foods in an increasingly unified and globalized food chain. These efforts have the potential to expand access to more nutritious food, to protect against crop diseases, and to explore the cultivation of native crops that may be more suitable to given local growing conditions.

The decrease in diversity of food crops brings about a decrease in the nutrients available to us. For instance, there are around a thousand varieties of banana, but it’s mainly one, the Cavendish banana, that is sold in our supermarkets. By comparison, the Karat banana variety contains 1,000 times the levels of a pigment that our bodies can convert to vitamin A. To put this in context, 250 million pre-school children have too little vitamin A in their diet, a deficiency which is considered one of the most damaging because it affects the immune system, making childhood infections more severe, leading to serious outcomes like blindness or impaired bone growth.

Because the production of and demand for only one kind of banana risks the extinction of other varieties ­– seeds often get lost and forgotten if they are not in use – we are neglecting a natural source of vitamin A that does not require any pharmaceuticals. The same goes for other crop varieties with different micronutrients.  As a result, we end up with “empty” foods that fill our stomachs but which lack nutritional value. This in turn is linked to the epidemics of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

The decline in crop diversity also puts food security at risk and is, consequently, a threat to peace. Simply put, there will be very few or no options left if our staple crops catch a genetic disease or if a pest appears that we do not know how to deal with. Both scenarios are not so far-fetched in the light of climate change. And when harvests fail, and people go hungry, wars are just around the corner.

According to FAO, the main reason for agrobiodiversity decline is the replacement of local varieties by improved higher-yielding exotic alternatives, a process called genetic erosion. Unintentionally set off by the Green Revolution, this process has been driven by globalization of our food system, the rise of the rule of the market and our love for convenience.

“All of the symptoms are pointing to the direction that we have to have a more diversified food ecosystem which will increase the base for our food security. We have already lost so many species! It is crucial to save what we have and make the best use of it for our short and long-term food security”, says Ammenah Gurub-Fakim, the President of Mauritius. Gurub-Fakim is also a biodiversity scientist who now leads the Food Forever Initiative, which was Launched at the EAT Forum 2017. The initiative focuses on Sustainable Development Goal 2.5 and unites individuals and organizations committed to ensuring that by 2030 we have a resilient food system built on the best use of agrobiodiversity.

Published on Committee on World Food Security

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