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Agriculture at risk

by Cema Tork

In brief

Pollinators can no longer be taken for granted: bee in an apple blossom.

Pollinators can no longer be taken for granted: bee in an apple blossom.

Food security is at risk because humans are reducing biodiversity, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It calls for coordinated international action in a recently published report.

The FAO’s first report on the State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture explains why biodiversity is essential to food and agriculture. It also spells out what needs to be done to protect it.

Wildlife plays a part in food production, the FAO points out. That is the case, for example, when birds feed on pests. More­over, three-quarters of crops depend on pollinators. The FAO warns that bees are becoming rare and that other insect populations are dwindling too. Moreover, some species of bats and birds also serve as pollinators, but are at risk of extinction. 

Scientists know that, as a general principle, biodiversity makes food systems resilient to shocks. Biodiversity is not only threatened by climate change. Invasive species, urbanisation, pollution, resource depletion, destructive consumption habits and unsustainable agriculture practices matter too. These include overharvesting, soil degradation and intensive farming in general. Farms rely on ever fewer species of plants and animals. Industrial scale breeding, moreover, means that the genetic base of varieties concerned is small and keeps shrinking.

Government policies often either harm or ignore biodiversity. For instance, infrastructure development may be destructive – such as, when new roads, dams or mines destroy wildlife habitats. Such projects have “caused the degradation and fragmentation of ecosystems, destroying habitats and creating barriers to species’ migrations”. According to the authors, even development considered “low impact” and “environmentally friendly” often threatens ecosystems with high levels of biodiversity.

Scientists still do not fully understand many important issues. More research is needed, for instance concerning pollinators, wild foods and invertebrates. The FAO warns that it is difficult to tell exactly what an ecosystem is worth. The value should be considered, but is mostly not taken into account. The authors suggest that a standard method for measuring what an ecosystem contributes to the economy – for instance in terms of productivity – would be useful. Such a method would help to convince policymakers, for example, and educate the public. The FAO calls for more research on the matter.

In political debate, agriculture and nature conservation are often considered to be opposites. The FAO warns that this assumption is wrong. It calls for more and closer collaboration amongst producers, consumers, marketers, policymakers, state agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Such cooperation, moreover, is needed internationally. The authors call for effective policies and stringent implementation, which depends on financial, technical and human resources. In their view, policies and implementation so far have proved too weak.

The report praises the Mexican approach to international and interdisciplinary cooperation. The Mexican biodiversity commission CONABIO (Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad) coordinates action to preserve traditional farming methods in cooperation with partners in other Central American countries. CONABIO organises funding from the public and private sector and provides money and seedlings to farmers, encouraging them to rehabilitate their land, prevent harmful slash-and-burn practice and comply with sustainable practices.

Mexicans can access CONABIO information on food security, conservation and soil and water use. Additionally, CONABIO promotes certification for sustainable coffee production which increases incentives for farmers as market value increases. This could be a model for other countries in regard to other products, the FAO report suggests.

Ninety-one countries submitted country reports to the FAO for the biodiversity study. The bad news is that biodiversity is in decline and the levels of protection are not yet sufficient. The good news is that biodiversity-friendly efforts are increasing. Ever more actors are realising that biodiversity really does matter.

FAO 2019: The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture.