diversity is fundamental
to agriculture and food

From the millions of genes that serve as life's building blocks, to the thousands of plants and animals that inhabit the Earth, to the almost limitless combinations of organisms that make up natural ecosystems, biodiversity makes an essential contribution to feeding the world.

Living things are interdependent, intricately linked in birth, death and renewal. Human beings are just one small part of this vibrant mosaic yet put increasing pressure on species and the environment. As a result, many plants and animals are at risk as well as essential natural processes such as pollination by insects and the regeneration of soils by micro-organisms.

To feed a growing population, agriculture must be intensified to provide more food. It will also be essential to increase the resilience of agriculture by maintaining a wide array of life forms with unique traits, such as trees that survive drought or cattle that reproduce in harsh conditions. Sustainable agricultural practices can both feed people and protect the oceans, forests, prairies and other ecosystems that harbour biological diversity.

To pay tribute to biodiversity's role in ensuring that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives, FAO has chosen "Biodiversity for Food Security" as this year's World Food Day theme.

Also in 2004, the world celebrates the entry into force of FAO's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Treaty will play an important role in achieving lasting food security and sustainable agriculture.

Biodiversity for Food Security
16 October 2004


Scientists so far have identified about 1.4 million of the plant and animal species that exist on Earth. People rely on the variety of life for food, shelter, goods, services and livelihood. But as human populations expand, biodiversity comes under threat. The greatest harm is caused by damage to natural habitats. Wild species become extinct when the places where they live are destroyed. Pollution, urbanization, deforestation and conversion of wetlands force out wildlife. Mismanagement of agriculture, forestry and fisheries further accelerates this destructive process.

Rice cultivation: a microcosm of the web of life

Rice fields are an extremely rich reservoir of biological diversity - in one rice field, FAO found more than 700 species of insects and other organisms. At the bottom of this food chain are bacteria and tiny aquatic plants. These organisms are eaten by microscopic animals, which in turn are eaten by mosquito and midge larvae. The larvae provide nourishment for larger predatory insects, whose presence ebbs and flows as rice is planted, grown and harvested. During the Green Revolution in Asia heavy insecticide use was introduced along with modern high-yielding rice varieties. But after devastating infestations by the brown planthopper, farmers realized that the chemicals also knocked out natural predators. Through farmer field schools, integrated pest management techniques help farmers to recognize insects and treat only those that threaten their crop. As a result, chemical use is down and rice yield is up. In 2004, FAO celebrates the International Year of Rice and welcomes the continued use of ecological methods of growing this essential crop.

FAO/23425/J. Boethlin


A rich variety of cultivated plants and domesticated animals serve as the foundation for agricultural biodiversity. Yet people depend on just 14 mammal and bird species for 90 percent of their food supply from animals. And just four species - wheat, maize, rice and potato - provide half of our energy from plants.

Beyond the number of species, it is also essential to conserve genetic diversity within each species. Modern agriculture has encouraged many farmers to adopt uniform high-yielding types of plants or animals. But when food producers abandon diversity, varieties and breeds may die out - along with specialized traits.

This rapidly diminishing gene pool worries experts. Having a broad range of unique characteristics allows plants and animals to be bred to meet changing conditions. It also gives scientists the raw materials they need to develop more productive and resilient crop varieties and breeds.

Rather than a single crop variety that guarantees a high yield, farmers in developing countries are more likely to need an assortment of crops that grow well in harsh climates or animals with resistance to disease. For the poorest farmers, the diversity of life may be their best protection against starvation. Consumers also benefit when they have access to a wide choice of plants and animals. This contributes to a nutritious diet, particularly important for rural communities with limited access to markets.

FAO/12675/F. McDougall


More than 40 percent of the land's surface is used for agriculture, giving farmers a large part of the responsibility for protecting biodiversity. By using techniques like no-tillage agriculture, reduced pesticide use, organic agriculture and crop rotation, farmers maintain the fragile balance of their farm and the surrounding ecosystems. With plants, animals and their environments intact, a range of essential services to nature is preserved. Livestock, insects, fungi and micro-organisms decompose organic matter, transferring nutrients to the soil. Bees, butterflies, birds and bats pollinate fruit trees. Swamps and marshes filter out pollutants. Forests prevent flooding and reduce erosion. And natural predators keep the growth of any one species in check.


FAO estimates that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops have been lost over the last century. And of 6 300 animal breeds, 1 350 are endangered or already extinct. Global efforts to conserve plants and animals in gene banks, botanical gardens and zoos are vital. But an equally important task is to maintain biodiversity on farms and in nature, where it can evolve and adapt to changing conditions or competition with other species. As custodians of the world's biodiversity, farmers can develop and maintain local plants and trees and reproduce indigenous animals, ensuring their survival.

FAO/23904/A. Yayé

International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture enters into force on 29 June 2004. This legally binding instrument is crucial for sustainable agriculture. It provides a framework for national, regional and international efforts to conserve and sustainably use plant genetic resources for food and agriculture - and for sharing the benefits equitably, in line with the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Treaty contains two important and unique elements. First, it recognizes the enormous contribution made by farmers in all regions of the world towards the conservation and development of plant genetic resources and identifies ways of protecting and promoting Farmers' Rights. Second, it establishes a multilateral system of access and benefit sharing. This will ensure that countries have access to some of the most important plant genetic resources needed for food security. It identifies a range of benefits to be shared on a multilateral basis - benefits like information exchange, technology transfer and access, building capacity at local levels, and monetary and other benefits of commercialization. Benefits are targeted mainly to developing countries and countries with economies in transition, to help ensure that they will have the capacity to conserve and sustainably use their own genetic resources as well as any they may obtain under the multilateral system.


Since the birth of agriculture 10 000 years ago, farmers, fishers, pastoralists and forest dwellers have been managing genetic diversity by selecting plants and animals to meet environmental conditions and food needs. Farmers transfer this knowledge from one generation to the next. It is this genetic variability, along with that of wild species, which allows scientists to breed improved strains of crops and livestock, and fish for aquaculture. In the 1840s, genetic uniformity left the Irish potato crop vulnerable to potato blight, a highly virulent disease that wiped out the crop and led to over a million deaths from starvation. Scientists later found that some of the best sources of resistance to blight came from Latin America, where potatoes originated and where local farmers had selected and planted disease-resistant varieties over millennia.

Farmers everywhere possess priceless local knowledge, including a highly tuned sense of how to match the right variety or breed with a particular agricultural ecosystem. In past years, the genetic resources of poor countries were used for crop and animal breeding, often with no benefit returning to those countries. Today, the contribution of farmers in these countries is increasingly recognized along with their right to receive some of the benefits, including monetary benefits. The concept of Farmers' Rights holds that farmers should share in the benefits, have a voice in decision-making, enjoy continued access to genetic diversity and obtain protection of their traditional knowledge. Farmer's Rights is an essential part of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (see box on this page).

FAO/23206/Shirley C. Year


As countries shift away from the production of local traditional foods, the food base often narrows. One way of protecting this resource is through market forces. In the Andes mountains of Bolivia and Peru, sales of the quinoa grain are on the rise. This highly nutritious and gluten-free wheat substitute sustained the Inca Empire but then fell into disuse. Efforts by local farmers and community groups are helping to boost its production. Elsewhere, consumers are calling for organically grown heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamins and taste good. From basmati rice in Pakistan to free-range native chickens in South Africa, demand for indigenous foods is helping farmers and processors to improve household income while safeguarding biodiversity.

FAO/22245/G. Bizzarri


Conserving biodiversity for agriculture will require efforts on many fronts. The foremost threat to biodiversity is the destruction of habitats. Damage to farmlands must be halted so that farming can protect and restore biodiversity within and around agricultural ecosystems. Often, a little help is all that is needed. In Tamil Nadu, India, intensive tea cultivation had left soils degraded. A treatment with earthworms and organic matter regenerated soil fertility and raised profits threefold.

A supportive policy environment is essential. Where traditional knowledge already provides a solution, government policy can offer additional support. For instance, flexible users' rights can facilitate the practice of farmers letting pastoralists graze animals on their fields in return for free manure to enrich soils. Local contracts for beekeepers who move their hives into orchards can boost fruit production through enhanced pollination.

Scientific research has much to offer farmers and more of it should be directed to the needs of poor countries. Science can enhance the knowledge of farmers on how to safeguard ecosystems and improve production overall. New techniques can help to better conserve genetic resources and detect disease. One way of supporting research will be through the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a fund created by FAO and its partners. The Trust will assist developing countries in maintaining first-rate gene banks where genetic resources will be kept safe for future generations.

More than anything else, it is perhaps better education that will be the deciding factor in protecting biodiversity. When farmers learn that yields can be improved without expensive and potentially harmful pesticides, they are quick to adopt these new methods. The work of environmental groups who inform the public about safeguarding biodiversity will also be increasingly important. And it is hoped that as governments see the benefits of policies and training to help farmers protect biodiversity, their support will grow. FAO will continue to count on the collaboration of its partners, including other international organizations; research, trade and policy institutes; grassroots community groups, the public and consumers.

More than 840 million people remain hungry around the world and still more suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Global efforts have so far been insufficient to reach the World Food Summit and related Millennium Development goal of reducing the number of hungry by half by 2015. Biodiversity will be a key ally in fighting malnutrition. It deserves our protection.

Protecting biodiversity with legal force

FAO helps to provide policy guidelines that regulate the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

The Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, adopted in 1995, sets out principles to conserve, manage and sustainably use living aquatic resources. The Code works to protect the world's marine, coastal and inland waters with due respect for biodiversity and the ecosystem. FAO encourages all countries to implement this voluntary Code including provisions with binding effects, for example on conservation and management measures for vessels on the high seas.

A Model Code of Forest Harvesting Practice was published in 1996 to encourage improved management to help conserve forests. Codes have been developed for the Asia-Pacific and West and Central African regions as well as national codes, for example for China.

The aim of the International Plant Protection Convention is to protect plants by setting standards for pest control. The Convention protects biodiversity by preventing the introduction of pests including invasive alien species that may out-compete local plants or animals. It entered into force in 1952.

In March 2004, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture received ratifications from enough countries to come into force 90 days later, on 29 June 2004. The Treaty will ensure that plant genetic resources are conserved and sustainably used and that the benefits from their use are equitably distributed.

The Convention on Biological Diversity recognizes that conservation of biological diversity is a common concern of humankind and essential for development. FAO works closely with the Convention secretariat on many issues, including joint management of a programme on agricultural biodiversity that draws upon the full range of FAO technical expertise.

FAO/19824/R. Faidutti
For more information:

World Food Day
Chief, Unit for Liaison with National Committees
Tel.: (+39) 06 570 54166
Fax: (+39) 06 570 53210

Executive Coordinator
TeleFood Secretariat
Tel.: (+39) 06 570 52917
Fax: (+39) 06 570 53167