The future of agriculture depends on biodiversity
On World Food Day 2004, FAO stresses that safeguarding and using the potential and diversity of nature is critical for world food security
Scientists have identified about 1.4 million unique species of plants and animals on the planet -- so far. Nearly every day, it seems, a new species is added to the list.
This variety of life is essential to human existence. We depend on it for food, water, energy, shelter, and in numerous other ways as well.
But as the planet's human population continues to expand, this biodiversity is coming under increasing threat.
The most visible 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 can further accelerate this destructive process.
At the same time, over 40 percent of Earth's surface is comprised of agricultural lands -- biodiversity is just as important on farms and in fields as it is in deep river valleys or mountain cloud forests.
This agricultural biological diversity consists of countless farmed plants that feed and heal people, crop varieties and aquatic species with specific nutritional characteristics, livestock species adapted to harsh environments, insects that pollinate fields and micro-organisms that regenerate agricultural soils.
But on the farm, too, biodiversity is at risk. Humankind increasingly depends on a reduced amount of agricultural biological diversity for its food supplies.
Some 10 000 years ago, humanity began a great experiment. Using the natural biodiversity around them, they started harvesting wild seeds and plants and domesticating them, choosing those varieties that yielded the most food, or the best rope, or which did well even in drought years.
Around the same time, they began domesticating animals as well, harnessing their power, eating their meat and drinking their milk.
The diversity of the plants and animals the first farmers had to work with allowed them to select strains of plants and breeds of animals specifically tailored to meet specific needs.
Today, genetic diversity remains essential for the continued sustainability of world agricultural production.
Farmers and agricultural scientists need it in order to adapt plants to changing conditions or expand production in new, previously unfarmed areas. The hidden genetic diversity of plants holds the key to improved yields, and crops that not only produce more to eat, but more nutritious food as well.
Yet currently, four plant species -- wheat, maize, rice and potato -- provide over half of plant-based calories in the human diet, while around a dozen species of animals provide 90% of the animal protein consumed globally.
Beyond the number of species used to produce food -- known as species diversity -- genetic diversity within species and populations is crucial as well. Demand from a growing, urbanized population, however, has encouraged many farmers to adopt uniform high-yielding types of plants or animals. When food producers abandon diversity, varieties and breeds may die out -- along with specialized traits.
Diversity brings benefits
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.
In those places where hunger is worst, the resource-poor countries of the developing world, farmers may be more likely to need crops that grow well in harsh climates, rather than strains that yield well under good conditions, or animals that are smaller but possess higher resistance to disease. Indeed, for the poorest farmers, the diversity of life may be their best protection against starvation.
Consumers in the developed and developing world alike 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.
Finally, with plants, animals and their environments left intact, a range of essential services provided by nature are preserved. Livestock, fungi and micro-organisms decompose organic matter, transferring nutrients to the soil. Ants and other insects control pest populations. Bees, butterflies, birds and bats pollinate fruit trees. Swamps and marshes filter out pollutants. Forests prevent flooding and reduce erosion. In the ocean, intact ecosystems help keep fish populations stable and healthy, ensuring tomorrow's catch.
Guaranteeing the future
To feed a growing population, agriculture must provide more food. It will also be essential to increase its resilience by protecting a wide array of life forms with unique traits, such as plants that survive drought or livestock 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.
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.
To learn more about agricultural biodiversity and how FAO is working with countries around the world to preserve it, read the related articles that make up this Focus on the issues package, linked to the right.
15 October 2004
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