The world’s agrobiodiversity, crucial to maintaining food security, is under pressure. While there are some 120 plant species cultivated for human food, it is estimated that just 30 crops provide 95 percent of human food-energy needs. Just five of these species – rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum - even provide about 60 percent (FAO, Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture).
Most agrobiodiversity is maintained on-farm, and its fundamental role in income generation, adaptation to climate change, nutrition and food security is widely acknowledged (Padulosi, Bioversity International 2012). The main cause of genetic erosion is that modern varieties are replacing local farmer varieties (The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture). In addition to this trend, the patenting of plants and seeds further restricts experimentation by individual farmers or public researchers, while also undermining local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability by adding a price tag to every seed (or cultivar) that used to be saved, shared and sown again the following year.
According to the FAO (The State of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture), conservation of species in gene banks has made considerable progress. A number of global initiatives exist that focus on safeguarding diversity, such as the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. Other initiatives like “Access to seed index” aim to bridge the gap between the world's leading seed companies and the smallholder farmer. Nevertheless, limited progress is being made to develop or strengthen on-farm seed systems that are based on smallholders’ needs and capacities.
Agricultural biodiversity and climate change
Climate change poses a serious and ever growing threat to the food and nutrition security of resource-poor farmers globally. For instance in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, agricultural yields are low and are estimated to drop an average of 22 percent by 2050, sending farmers who are already struggling to feed their families deeper into poverty and malnutrition. Erratic rainfall and droughts are also expected to become more frequent, which will negatively affect agricultural production further.
Current agricultural policies address productivity questions by focussin on single crop production and homogenisation of agriculture to a few varieties with higher yields. This leads to the loss of agricultural biodiversity, which further weakens the resilience of resource-poor farmers. However, maintaining a diverse base of resilient planting materials is vital for future generations to continue adapting, and farmers’ access to a much wider range of accessible seeds will give them options to better manage climate risks and related biotic stresses such as pests and diseases.
But inadequate policies that remain focused on high input agriculture offer few options to the majority of resource-poor farmers to bolster resilience, improve nutrition and enhance their own livelihoods. Moreover, gender inequality renders agricultural systems more vulnerable. It is estimated that if women had the same access to quality productive resources as men, farms would likely have 20-30 percent higher yields.
To get an idea of the issues and solutions surrounding biodiversity and seeds, Vice Versa magazine (special Winter 2017 'seeds' edition) spoke to policymakers, development workers, farmers and private companies on how farmers can gain access to good seeds and contribute to biodiversity. You can read the online version here.