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WHAT IS AGRICULTURAL BIODIVERSITY?
Agricultural biodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms which are necessary to sustain key functions of the agro-ecosystem, its structure and processes for, and in support of, food production.
Agricultural biodiversity is the selected and enhanced sub-set of biodiversity resulting from human interaction with other species in (agro)ecosystems. It is an outcome of the innovation, knowledge, skills and practices of, or has co-evolved with, countless generations of women and men who are smallholder and peasant farmers, gardeners, livestock keepers, pastoralists, artisanal fishers, forest dwellers, Indigenous Peoples, and other small-scale food providers, who produce food for most people in the world from their more ecological forms of production and harvesting. It can be described at genetic, species and ecosystem levels - variation in agricultural biodiversity is apparent at local, community and landscape / watershed / coastal-marine levels. It is also described spatially, within and between production systems, and temporally.
Agricultural biodiversity includes the variety and variability of:
Crop varieties, fodder and tree species, livestock breeds, diverse aquatic and marine species and non- domesticated ('wild') species used by people. (These ‘target' species may also be manifest as ‘populations', rather than distinct ‘varieties')
Non-harvested ‘associated' species and populations within ecosystems that support production and provide essential ecosystem functions e.g. soil micro-organisms, pollinators, plant and animal pest predators, crop wild relatives, aquatic organisms.
Ecosystems (including agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic/marine ecosystems) at all scales.
Ecological food provision depends on and develops agricultural biodiversity above and below ground, in farms and gardens, in grazing lands and in productive waters.
On-farm / on the range / in pond conservation in situ is essential for sustaining and developing agricultural biodiversity
The organisations of small-scale food providers are increasingly and consistently clear about the need to sustain agricultural biodiversity in the framework of food sovereignty, the policy proposal of social movements for a healthy, equitable and sustainable food system.
There are important links between campaigns to secure food supplies, provide adequate nutrition, adapt to and mitigate against climate change, and the numerous advocacy processes and actions to address the causes of loss of agricultural biodiversity – policy, legal, commercial, technological.
( FAO, 1999 and other sources)
Other descriptions include:
Agricultural biodiversity of all food species is a
vital sub-set of general biodiversity, highly threatened by globalisation of
food markets and tastes, intellectual property systems and the spread of
unsustainable industrial food production, but it provides the basis of the food
security and livelihood security of billions of people and the development of
all food production, including for industrial agriculture and for the
biotechnology (Life) industries. It is the first link in the food chain,
developed and safeguarded by farmers, herders and fishers throughout the world.
Although the term "agricultural
biodiversity" is relatively new - it has come into wide use in recent
years as evidenced by bibliographic references - the concept itself is quite
old. It is the result of the careful selection and inventive developments of
farmers, herders and fishers over millennia. Agricultural biodiversity is a
vital sub-set of biodiversity. It is a creation of humankind whose food and
livelihood security depend on the sustained management of those diverse
biological resources that are important for food and agriculture. Agricultural
biodiversity, also known as agrobiodiversity or the genetic resources for food
and agriculture, includes:
- Harvested crop varieties, livestock breeds, fish species and non-
domesticated ('wild') resources within field, forest, rangeland and in aquatic
- Non-harvested species within production ecosystems that support food
provision, including soil micro-biota, pollinators and so on; and
Agricultural biodiversity results from the interaction between the environment,
genetic resources and the management systems and practices used by culturally
diverse peoples resulting in the different ways land and water resources are
used for production. It thus encompasses the variety and variability of
animals, plants and micro-organisms which are necessary to sustain key
functions of the agro-ecosystem, its structure and processes for, and in
support of, food production and food security (FAO, 1999).
- Non-harvested species in the wider environment that support food production
ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic ecosystems).
Agricultural biodiversity has spatial, temporal and scale dimensions especially
at agro-ecosystem levels. These agro-ecosystems - ecosystems that are used for
agriculture - are determined by three sets of factors: the genetic resources,
the physical environment and the human management practices. There are
virtually no ecosystems in the world that are "natural" in the sense
of having escaped human influence. Most ecosystems have been to some extent
modified or cultivated by human activity for the production of food and income
and for livelihood security.
Agro-ecosystems may be identified at different levels or scales, for instance,
a field/crop/ herd/pond, a farming system, a land-use system or a watershed.
These can be aggregated to form a hierarchy of agro-ecosystems. Ecological
processes can also be identified at different levels and scales. Valuable
ecological processes that result from the interactions between species and
between species and the environment include, inter alia, biochemical recycling,
the maintenance of soil fertility and water quality and climate regulation
(e.g. micro-climates caused by different types and density of vegetation).
Moreover, the interaction between the environment, genetic resources and
management practices determines the evolutionary process, which may involve,
for instance, introgression from wild relatives, hybridization between
cultivars, mutations, and natural and human selections. These result in genetic
material (farmers' crop varieties or animal breeds) that is well adapted to
local abiotic and biotic environmental variation.
So, agricultural biodiversity is not only the result of human activity but
human life is dependent on it not just for the immediate provision of food and
other goods, but for the maintenance of areas of land that will sustain
production and for the maintenance of the wider environment.
Agro-ecosystems comprise polycultures, monocultures, and mixed systems,
including crop-livestock systems (rice - fish), agroforestry,
agro-silvo-pastoral systems, aquaculture as well as rangelands, pastures and
fallow lands. Their interactions with human activities, including
socio-economic activity and sociocultural socio-cultural diversity, are
determinant. Some of the key functions for maintaining stable, robust,
productive and sustainable agro-ecosystems may include the following:
- breakdown of organic matter and recycling of nutrients to maintain soil
fertility and sustain plant and consequently animal growth;
- breakdown of pollutants and maintenance of a clean and healthy atmosphere;
- moderation of climatic effects such as maintaining rainfall patterns and
modulation of the water cycle and the absorption of solar energy by the land
and its subsequent release;
- maintenance and stability of productive vegetative, fish and animal
populations and the limitation of invasion by harmful or less useful species;
- protection and conservation of soil and water resources, for example
through a vegetative cover and appropriate management practices, and the
consequent maintenance of the integrity of landscapes and habitats;
- sequestration of CO2 by plants.
This was discussed at an international Agricultural Biodiversity workshop
organised by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) where the multiple dimensions
of agricultural biodiversity were also summarised as providing for:
- i. Sustainable production of food and other agricultural products
emphasising both strengthening sustainability in production systems at all
levels of intensity and improving the conservation, sustainable use and
enhancement of the diversity of all genetic resources for food and agriculture,
especially plant and animal genetic resources, in all types of production
- ii. Biological or life support to production emphasising conservation,
sustainable use and enhancement of the biological resources that support
sustainable production systems, particularly soil biota, pollinators and
- iii. Ecological and social services provided by agro-ecosystems such as
landscape and wildlife protection, soil protection and health (fertility,
structure and function), water cycle and water quality, air quality, CO2
DEFINITION OF AGRICULTURAL BIODIVERSITY
The variety and variability of animals, plants and
micro-organisms used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture
(including, in the FAO definition, crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries).
It comprises the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds, etc.) and
species used for food, fodder, fibre, fuel and pharmaceuticals. It also
includes the diversity of non-harvested species that support production (e.g.
soil micro-organisms, predators, pollinators and so on) and those in the wider
environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and
aquatic), as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems themselves.
It has also been defined as:
Agricultural biodiversity encompasses the variety and
variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms which are necessary to
sustain key functions of the agro-ecosystem, its structure and processes for,
and in support of, food production and food security. (FAO, 1999)
HAPPENING TO AGRICULTURAL BIODIVERSITY?
These locally diverse food production systems are
under threat and, with them, the accompanying local knowledge, culture and
skills of the food producers. With this decline, agricultural biodiversity is
disappearing and the scale of loss is extensive and with the disappearance of
harvested species, varieties and breeds goes a wide range of unharvested
- More than 90 per cent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers'
- Half of the breeds of many domestic animals have been lost.
- In fisheries, all the world's 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished
at or above their sustainable limits, with many fish populations effectively
The genetic erosion of agricultural biodiversity is
also exacerbated by the loss of forest cover, coastal wetlands and other 'wild'
uncultivated areas, and the destruction of the aquatic environment. This leads
to losses of 'wild' relatives, important for the development of biodiversity,
and losses of 'wild' foods essential for food provision, particularly in times
THE UNDERLYING CAUSES OF THE LOSSES OF AGRICULTURAL BIODIVERSITY?
There are many causes of this decline, which has been
accelerating throughout the 20th century in parallel with the demands of an
increasing population and greater competition for natural resources. The
principal underlying causes include:
- The rapid expansion of industrial and Green Revolution agriculture,
intensive livestock production, industrial fisheries and aquaculture (some
production systems using genetically modified varieties and breeds) that
cultivate relatively few crop varieties in monocultures, rear a limited number
of domestic animal breeds, or fish for, or cultivate, few aquatic species.
- Globalisation of the food system and marketing, and the extension of
industrial patenting and other intellectual property systems to living
organisms, which have led to the widespread cultivation and rearing of fewer
varieties and breeds for a more uniform, less diverse but more competitive
As a consequence there has been:
- Marginalisation of small-scale, diverse food production systems that
conserve farmers' varieties of crops and breeds of domestic animals, which form
the genetic pool for food and agriculture in the future.
- Reduced integration of livestock in arable production, which reduces the
diversity of uses for which livestock are needed.
Genetic erosion is the loss of genetic diversity, including the loss of
individual genes,102 and the loss of particular combinations of genes (i.e. of
gene-complexes ) such as those manifested in locally adapted landraces. The
term genetic erosion is sometimes used in a narrow sense, i.e. the
loss of genes or alleles, as well as more broadly, referring to the loss of
varieties. The main cause of genetic erosion in crops, as reported by almost
all countries, is the replacement of local varieties by improved or exotic
varieties and species. As old varieties in farmers fields are replaced by
newer ones, genetic erosion frequently occurs because the genes and gene
complexes found in the diverse farmers varieties are not contained in
toto in the modern variety. In addition, the sheer number of varieties is often
reduced when commercial varieties are introduced into traditional farming
systems. While some indicators of genetic erosion have been developed,
according to FAO (1996, 1998) there have been few systematic studies of the
genetic erosion of crop genetic diversity which have provided quantifiable
estimates of the actual rates of genotypic or allelic extinction in PGRFA.
Nearly all countries say, in Country Reports to FAO in 1996, that genetic
erosion is taking place and that it is a serious problem.
- Reduced use of 'nurture' fisheries techniques, that conserve and develop
Variety replacement is the main cause of losses. The replacement of local
varieties or landraces by improved and/or exotic varieties and species is
reported to be the major cause of genetic erosion around the world. It is also
cited as the major cause of genetic erosion in all regions except Africa.
Examples are mentioned in 81 Country Reports, of which a number are highlighted
below. A survey of farm households in the Republic of Korea showed that
of 14 crops cultivated in home gardens, an average of only 26% of the landraces
cultivated there in 1985 were still present in 1993. The retention rate did not
exceed 50% for any crop, and for two crops it was zero. These results are
disturbing as such home gardens have traditionally been important conservation
sites, especially for vegetable crops.103 In China, in 1949, nearly
10,000 wheat varieties were used in production. By the 1970s, only about 1,000
varieties remained in use. Statistics from the 1950s show that local varieties
accounted for 81% of production, locally produced improved varieties made up
15% and introduced varieties 4%. By the 1970s, these figures had changed
drastically; locally produced improved varieties accounted for 91% of
production, introduced varieties 4% and local varieties only 5%. (FAO 1996,