Of all the earth’s resources, biodiversity for food and agriculture is one of the most important. The wealth of genetic resources for food and agriculture enables food production systems to flourish and underpins efforts to achieve global food security.
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Domestication of plants and animals for agriculture began about 12,000 years ago. Throughout these millennia, farmers and breeders have improved crops, exchanged seeds and have developed, cultivated and collected over 7,000 species of plants for food.
© FAO/Giulio Napolitano
The immense diversity of plant genetic resources enables farmers around the world to grow crops that can withstand regional and climatic differences. In the Andes alone, farming communities cultivate more than 175 locally named potato varieties that, over the centuries, have adapted to the unique growing conditions of this area and helped people survive.
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Today, 70 percent of the world’s rural poor maintain and depend on livestock as an integral part of their livelihoods. Farmers and pastoralists have continuously managed and selected their farm animals, resulting in thousands of unique breeds being developed that are adapted to local environmental conditions and market preferences.
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Farm animals provide meat, milk, eggs, fibres, skins, manure for fertilizer and fuel, draught power for cultivation and transport. They also act as a banking system in many countries, as animals are bought with farm profits and sold as needed to buy inputs and household needs.
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Forests provide energy, protect soil and are imperative for supporting rural livelihoods and economic and social development. Although tree species number somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000, fewer than 500 species have been studied. This means that the full extent of forests’ potential remains largely unknown.
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Although we may not see all of them in action, micro-organisms and invertebrates make enormous contributions to food and agriculture. They pollinate plants and trees, recycle nutrients in soils, ferment bread and cheese, help animals digest otherwise indigestible forage, and if appropriately selected and managed by humans, provide natural protection against plant pests in farmers’ fields.
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Aquaculture and capture fisheries provide livelihood opportunities and income for many families. In capture fisheries, maintaining aquatic biodiversity – which includes fish genetic diversity as well as aquatic plants and other organisms – is fundamental to guaranteeing the productivity of fish stocks, their resilience and their adaptability to environmental change. Sustainable development of aquaculture also depends on maintaining aquatic biodiversity.
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Crops, farm animals, aquatic organisms, forest trees, micro-organisms and invertebrates – thousands of species and their genetic variability – make vital contributions to global food security. This diversity will be crucial to adapting to future changes, both changes in production conditions and the demand for diverse products.
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