Biodiversity is much more than the simple measure of species numbers

May 21, 2019


Biodiversity is the spice of life, the foundation of our food and health and the greatest promise for the future of human kind. Biodiversity does not provide only food and income, but materials for medicine and performs other services of maintenance of the environment, essential for human survival.

The 2019 State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture Report reveals that many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels are in decline. These and other reports suggest that the risk of extinction is increasing, with crop diversity in farmers’ fields decreasing. This thought-provoking revelation emanating from research, demonstrates that this crucial foundation is at threat.

The theme for this year is timely as it is coming during an overlap of global action to bring together nutrition and biodiversity in unique ways. The United Nations Decade on Biodiversity 2011-2020 and United Nations Decade on Action on Nutrition 2016-2025 intersect well with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda on reduction of poverty, hunger and focus on health.

As with any country, Kenya has made a couple of attempts to front strategic actions in order to contribute towards Food and Nutrition Security and, generally, agriculture. This includes actions such as Vision 2030 that birthed the Galana Kulalu Food Security (Irrigation) project, the Big Four Agenda with the second pillar on Food and Nutrition Security laying emphasis on 100 per cent Food and Nutrition Security for all Kenyans, and recently the Agriculture Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy 2019-2029, among others.

Is this enough, and are these actions transformative?

Business as Usual or Transformative Change?

Agriculture policies and programs mostly focus on enhancing large-scale production of a few staple crops. For instance, the Big Four Agenda item on Food and Nutrition Security seeks to increase the availability of maize, potatoes and rice by allocating an additional 700,000 acres through a Private Public Partnership for the aforementioned crops, as well as for cotton, aquaculture and animal feed production. More often, the success (or not) of similar initiatives is measured in terms of food quantity, especially as dietary energy supply, as was the case with the Galana Kulalu Food Security Project where the number of bags of maize was measured.

The Agriculture Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy 2019-2029 aspires to achieve 100 per cent food and nutrition security anchored in again increasing agricultural output, increasing small-scale farmer incomes and value-addition through nine flagship projects. The strategy document appreciates devolved governance and alludes to the fact that the counties are the bedrock of implementation and maps out county agriculture sector priorities and 39 value chains dubbed the “transformational priorities” which are ranked by impact and feasibility. The recommendations for Flagship Project 5, ‘Restructuring governance and operations of Strategic Food Reserves’, includes a focus on two or three commodities, namely maize, legumes and rice to improve nutrition. It is important to note that Flagship project 5 is a national project making all counties eligible for the same. Some interesting sections in this strategy document include Flagship Project 6 on the food resilience of households in arid and semi-arid lands, and Flagship Project 9 on the monitoring two key food systems risks. While these strategies seek to drive Kenya’s agricultural transformation and support food security aspirations, it raises concerns on how important foundations for food systems such as biodiversity will be incorporated.

Whereas specialization with intensified production can foster an increase in the production of certain crops, a transition out of poverty and also contribute to the Gross Domestic Product depending on the season and other factors, trade-offs definitely exist in the long run. Trade-offs in terms of health, livelihood security, resilience and general sustainability. When compromised, narratives of what Jessica Fanzo and other authors refer to as the “curse of cash crops”, start emerging.

Biodiversity loss is our loss!

The links between biodiversity, food and health are deeply entrenched. Biodiversity encompasses much more than the simple measure of species numbers. It also includes species richness, genetic diversity and also extends to their distribution, habitats and ecosystems. Biodiversity is affected by the growing world population, which is currently estimated at 7 billion and is only expected to grow. With a growing population comes an increased demand for food, and in the past few years this has resulted in the conversion of natural ecosystems to agricultural lands and the promotion of homogenized systems that lead to a dependency on a few crops. Currently, it is reported that only 12 crops and five animal species provide 75 per cent of the world’s food today. This means that foods that are not part of these 12 crops will slowly begin to disappear from our tables and farms, and complex burdens like under-nutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies, loss of biodiversity, and compromised climate-change resilience will co-exist in destructive harmony.

However, there is a refreshing perspective emerging which focuses on the need to holistically address food system issues by integrating the disciplines of nutrition, agriculture, environment and economics. For instance, traditionally, nutrition falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Health, where nutrition-specific approaches rely principally on supplements, nutrition fortification of staple or convenient foods. Yet, this is where an integrated nutrition-sensitive approach, that includes for example, the promotion of crop diversification, can be a game changer. Dialogues that link agriculture to nutrition for improved health outcomes, are therefore crucial.

Advancing concepts such as Sustainable Diets for All, where Hivos has upheld and sought to amplify biodiversity recognition, protection and conservation, are vital. The added value of this concept is its emphasis on using citizen agency, multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder approaches to improve food systems—from the local to the national and global levels.

There is furthermore a real need to rediscover the many unique, agricultural heritages that have fed us in the past and which should continue to feed us going forward. Biodiversity is not the only component necessary for a sustainable food system. Yet, a sustainable food system cannot exist without biodiversity.