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

Contributor: Michelle Kovacevic

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 month, the US government slashed its forecast for corn production by 17 percent due to the worst drought the country has experienced 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 world’s food security relies on thousands of crop species. Unfortunately, commercialization of mainstream agriculture has concentrated on very few crops, which raises serious concerns about the sustainability of feeding the world today and in the future,” said Stefano Padulosi, Senior Scientist, Bioversity International.

The world’s food basket is shrinking at an alarming rate. Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) tells us that of the 100-120 species used today for large-scale food production, 95 percent of the dietary energy provided to humans comes from only about 20-30 crops, 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 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 resilience,” Padulosi said.

“In the case of the blight outbreak, resistance was found in a crop wild relative”, explained Carlo Fadda, Senior Scientist, Bioversity International speaking at a workshop organized by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Bioversity International. “They are an increasingly important resource for improving agricultural productivity as many genes that confer resistance to new diseases are found in crop wild relatives. Pimentel and colleagues estimate that crop wild relatives contribute around US$ 115 billion  annually in increased productivity and with climate change, crop wild relatives are likely to prove a critical resource in ensuring food security for the new millennium.”

Genetic material from crop wild relatives has been used 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.

Stefano Padulosi presents a poster on Red Lists for Cultivated Species at the IUCN Congress. Pictured with Prof. MS Swaminathan.

“While we deploy consistent efforts to monitor the status of wild biodiversity (such as the IUCN Red List of Threatened Wild Species), there is very little research to monitor the diversity of cultivated plants and domesticated animals used by farmers in helping them to cope with climate change,” said Padulosi. “There is a need to develop ways to monitor the food crop diversity that sustains humankind.”

With this in mind, researchers supported by International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the CGIAR Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Programme (CCAFS) are working with  local communities in Nepal, India and Bolivia to develop and test out novel approaches for Red Listing cultivated species and implement a long-term locally-controlled monitoring programme. 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 two variables –  the area of land under their cultivation and the number of households cultivating them.

During these community-based participatory assessments, an initial list of lost varieties was developed and subsequently validated at a regional and national level through diversity and seed fairs, visits to other communities, surveys and other means.

“This approach allows us to ‘raise the red flag’ whenever a decline in the use of a variety goes below a certain level and its benefits (nutritional, income generation, etc.) are no longer reaching the community members at large, who are therefore more vulnerable,” continued Padulosi. “We found that the key to resilient food systems is not just genetic diversity but also indigenous knowledge, but there has been a tremendous erosion of this as well. We need to develop approaches, methods and tools to value and safeguard this knowledge. Women particularly will need support 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 the number of agricultural subsidies that given to large-scale and industrial agricultural farmers,” said Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, Founder and Director of the indigenous rights NGO Tebtebba speaking at the IUCN 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.”

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 small-scale sustainable agriculture 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, explained Pablo Eyzaguirre, a Bioversity International senior scientist. “Biodiversity hotspots and the world’s protected areas are also centres of crop domestication and diversity.  The farming communities and indigenous people that manage these landscapes are still innovating and maintaining the diversity that the world needs to cope with change and produce enough healthy food.”

As Patrick Holden, the farmer and soil scientists 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.”

Michelle Kovacevic is a science communicator with an honours degree in neuroscience from the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is currently the editor of the CIFOR blog, freelances for several science magazines presents science shows to school students and has also worked in the field of corporate science communication.

This article first appeared here.

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