27.02.2019 |

UN: Future of food ‘under severe threat’ from biodiversity loss

More diversity on farms and plates (A. Beck)

The plants, animals, and micro-organisms that are the foundation of food production are in decline, putting the future of our food, livelihoods, health and environment under severe threat. This dire warning has been issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a report released on February 22. It is the first global assessment of biodiversity for food and agriculture, i.e. all the species that support our food systems and sustain the people who grow or provide our food. The report draws on information provided by 91 countries, 27 reports from international organizations and inputs from over 175 authors. But not only the plants and animals that provide food, feed, fuel and fiber are in decline. Biodiversity loss also affects the myriad of organisms that support farming through ecosystem services, dubbed “associated biodiversity” by the authors. This includes all the plants, animals and micro-organisms (such as insects, bats, birds, mangroves, corals, seagrasses, earthworms, soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria) which keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.

The report presents mounting evidence that plant diversity in farmers’ fields is decreasing. Globally, there are approximately 382,000 species of vascular plants, out of which a little over 6,000 have been cultivated for food. Of these, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output, and only nine crops (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava) account for 66% of total crop production by weight. The world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. According to the report, 7,745 out of 8,803 reported livestock breeds are classed as local, i.e. they occur in only one country. 594 of these breeds are extinct. Among those local breeds still in existence, 26% are classed as being at risk of extinction and 67% as being of unknown risk status.

The contributing countries reported that wild food species and many species that provide ecosystem services, including pollinators, soil organisms and natural enemies of pests, are rapidly disappearing. 24% of nearly 4,000 wild food species – mainly plants, fish and mammals – are decreasing in abundance. But the proportion of wild foods in decline is likely to be even greater as the state of more than half of the reported wild food species is unknown. The largest number of wild food species in decline appear in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Asia-Pacific and Africa. This has a negative impact on local communities. The Gambia, for example, mentions that massive losses of wild foods have obliged communities to turn to alternatives (often industrially produced foods) to supplement their diets. In Cameroon, communities lost income from the sale of wild food products, as well as valuable nutritional benefits. As a result, migration increased among these populations as they can no longer make a livelihood from the wild food products.

“Biodiversity is critical for safeguarding global food security, underpinning healthy and nutritious diets, improving rural livelihoods, and enhancing the resilience of people and communities,” stressed FAO’s Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” he added. The driver of biodiversity loss cited by most countries is changes in land and water use and management, followed by pollution, overexploitation and overharvesting, climate change, and population growth and urbanization. “In many parts of the world, biodiverse agricultural landscapes in which cultivated land is interspersed with uncultivated areas such as woodlands, pastures and wetlands have been, or are being, replaced by large areas of monoculture, farmed using large quantities of external inputs such as pesticides, mineral fertilizers and fossil fuels,” says the report. “Loss and degradation of forest and aquatic ecosystems and, in many production systems, transition to intensive production of a reduced number of species, breeds and varieties, remain major drivers.”

The good news is that many biodiversity-friendly management practices and approaches are attracting growing interest and in many cases are becoming more widely adopted. The practices applied in the reporting countries include organic agriculture, integrated pest management, sustainable soil management, agroecology, sustainable forest management, agroforestry, diversification practices in aquaculture, ecosystem approach to fisheries and ecosystem restoration. In California, for example, farmers allow their rice fields to flood in winter instead of burning them after growing season. This provides 111,000 hectares of wetlands and open space for 230 bird species, many at risk of extinction. As a result, many species have begun to increase in numbers, and the number of ducks has doubled. Conservation efforts, both on-site (e.g. protected areas, on farm management) and off-site (e.g. gene banks, zoos, botanic gardens) are also increasing globally.

While the rise in biodiversity-friendly practices is encouraging, FAO highlights that more needs to be done to stop the loss of biodiversity. Although most countries have put in place legal, policy and institutional frameworks for the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity, these are often inadequate or insufficient. The report calls on governments and the international community to do more to promote pro-biodiversity initiatives and create incentives. “Key tasks include addressing the drivers of biodiversity loss within the food and agriculture sector and beyond, strengthening in situ and ex situ conservation measures, and increasing the uptake of management practices that promote the contributions of biodiversity to sustainable production,” said Graziano da Silva. But the report also highlights the role the general public can play in reducing pressures on biodiversity for food and agriculture. Consumers can opt for sustainably grown products (e.g. organic farming, fair trade, welfare-friendly animal products, sustainable forestry or fishing practices), opt for shorter supply chains by buying from farmers’ markets, or boycott foods seen as unsustainable. (ab)

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