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Agrobiodiversity is the result of natural selection processes and the careful selection and inventive developments of farmers, herders and fishers over millennia. Agrobiodiversity is a vital sub-set of biodiversity. Many people’s food and livelihood security depend on the sustained management of various biological resources that are important for food and agriculture. Agricultural biodiversity, also known as agrobiodiversity or the genetic resources for food and agriculture, includes:


Agrobiodiversity is the result of the interaction between the environment, genetic resources and management systems and practices used by culturally diverse peoples, and therefore land and water resources are used for production in different ways. Thus, agrobiodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are necessary for sustaining key functions of the agro-ecosystem, including its structure and processes for, and in support of, food production and food security (FAO, 1999a). Local knowledge and culture can therefore be considered as integral parts of agrobiodiversity, because it is the human activity of agriculture that shapes and conserves this biodiversity.


The variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries. It comprises the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds) and species used for food, fodder, fibre, fuel and pharmaceuticals. It also includes the diversity of non-harvested species that support production (soil micro-organisms, predators, pollinators), and those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic) as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems.

Source: FAO, 1999a

Many farmers, especially those in environments where high-yield crop and livestock varieties do not prosper, rely on a wide range of crop and livestock types. This helps them maintain their livelihood in the face of pathogen infestation, uncertain rainfall and fluctuation in the price of cash crops, socio-political disruption and the unpredictable availability of agro-chemicals. So-called minor or underutilized crops, more accurately, companion crops, are frequently found next to the main staple or cash crops. They often grow side by side and their importance is often misjudged. In many cases, from a livelihoods perspective, they are not minor or underutilized as they can play a disproportionately important role in food production systems at the local level. Plants that will grow in infertile or eroded soils, and livestock that will eat degraded vegetation, are often crucial to household nutritional strategies. In addition, rural communities, and the urban markets with which they trade, make great use of these companion crop species.


In Burkina Faso, and throughout the West African Sahel, rural women carefully collect the fruit, leaves and roots of native plants such as the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata), red sorrel leaves (Hibiscus saddarifa), kapok leaves (Ceiba pentandra) and tigernut tubers (Cyperus esculentus L.) for use in the families’ diet. These supplement the agricultural grains (millet, sorghum) that provide only one part of the nutritional spectrum and may fail in any given year. More than 800 species of edible wild plants have been catalogued across the Sahel.

Source: IK Notes No. 23. 2000.

There are several distinctive features of agrobiodiversity, compared to other components of biodiversity:

An overview of the key roles of agrobiodiversity is provided in the following Box. Not all the roles listed will be relevant in any given situation. Nonetheless, this list may serve as a checklist to prioritize those that are crucial in a project/work situation.


Experience and research have shown that agrobiodiversity can:

* Increase productivity, food security, and economic returns
* Reduce the pressure of agriculture on fragile areas, forests and endangered species
* Make farming systems more stable, robust, and sustainable
* Contribute to sound pest and disease management
* Conserve soil and increase natural soil fertility and health
* Contribute to sustainable intensification
* Diversify products and income opportunities
* Reduce or spread risks to individuals and nations
* Help maximize effective use of resources and the environment
* Reduce dependency on external inputs
* Improve human nutrition and provide sources of medicines and vitamins, and
* Conserve ecosystem structure and stability of species diversity.

(Adapted from Thrupp, 1997)

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