16 September 2021
By DevelopmentAid / Ana Benoliel Coutinho
Agricultural biodiversity is considered to have the greatest potential to ensure both the actual and potential availability of food for humans as it includes the organisms and natural processes that support food production. While these have all been progressively degraded and are in decline, the attention currently being given to agrobiodiversity offers hope for a better future. In an exclusive interview with DevelopmentAid, Gordana Djuric, an influential expert in biosafety, shared her experience and insights regarding agrobiodiversity and its importance for food security. Noting that biodiversity is essential and critically necessary for ecologically and economically sustainable production, Gordana warns that within 10 to 15 years the world may lose all local seed varieties and this would therefore strike an irredeemable blow to biodiversity unless humankind changes its approach and moves away from monocultural agriculture.
Agrobiodiversity is much more than our food
Agricultural biodiversity, or agrobiodiversity, refers to the genetic resources for agriculture and food and is comprised of harvested and non-harvested species of plants and animals. The former includes, for instance, livestock breeds and crop varieties while the second is sub-divided into two. On the one hand, it includes bees, soil microorganisms, and other biodiversity that supports agricultural production while on the other, it is ‘a wider environment that supports food production ecosystems’.
Agrobiodiversity also results from natural selection processes as well as from the selections made by farmers and herders over millennia. Peasants derived species of plants and animals for farming from wild varieties (the overall biodiversity) thus contributing to the creation of a range of new crops worldwide which today form the foundation of the human diet. In fact, this is derived from 1.9 million peasant-bred plant varieties and 5,000 domesticated crop species with the largest proportion of these being grown without agrochemicals. Thus, agrobiodiversity is crucial for food security and food systems in general:
“Experience and research have shown that agrobiodiversity can increase productivity, food security, and economic returns, […], make farming systems more stable, robust, and sustainable, contribute to sound pest and disease management, conserve soil and increase natural soil fertility and health […]” (Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO)
Decline in agrobiodiversity is a serious threat
In conversation with DevelopmentAid, Gordana Djuric, a biosafety expert and national coordinator for the working group and program on plant genetic resources who has completed two mandates as a director of the Institute of Genetic Resources in Bosnia and Herzegovina, shared how current food systems and policies degrade agrobiodiversity and threaten food safety. Existing data shows that over the last century
“some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties” (FAO)
According to the FAO, there are two principal underlying causes for the decline in agrobiodiversity and that is the globalization of food systems and the rapid expansion of industrialization, and the Green Revolution that came with artificial fertilizers and pesticides as well as genetically modified varieties and breeds. Indeed, modernized industrial food production relies on the availability of one specific crop variety on a huge scale which helps to reduce the cost of production and results in large volumes of one specific food.
Together with government subsidies, such monocultural (mono meaning one) production allows large producers to keep prices low. Gordana underlines that “98% of agricultural budget goes to commercial production: milk from high-milked cattle, high-yielded crops”. “This must change,” she emphasizes, explaining that such an approach is in contrast to agricultural biodiversity which is essential for ecologically and economically sustainable production as well as for healthy diets.
This system of conventional industrial food production is contributing to the decline and progressive loss of agrobiodiversity.
“Agrobiodiversity is very important. Thirty-five years ago, agriculture meant monoculture, high-yielded crop varieties and milky races of cows and so on, but over the last 30 years, diversity has been rapidly destroyed, including the Balkan Region,” stresses Gordana.
She explains that large conventional production that relies upon biotechnology and seed companies providing high-yielding crop varieties has created serious obstacles to the traditional peasant-breeding of seeds. Gordana also refers to the legislation covering the entire European continent that forbids farmers to sell their seeds which they are allowed to use for their own consumption and production as well as to exchange but not to sell for commercial use.
“We risk losing genetics for new breeding. For centuries, farmers produced and took part in breeding, and with the seed company and food system after the Second World War, the monopoly of seed companies, and legislation regarding seed we have rapidly lost many of these genes. It is really dangerous. If we continue like this, in 10 to 15 years we may lose all these genes,” she underlined.
On-farm preservation: the knowledge and sustainable use of agrobiodiversity
Gordana is currently involved in a range of national and regional projects that create opportunities to regenerate agrobiodiversity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of these initiatives aims to promote and re-establish the use of neglected genetic resources, specifically local varieties in agriculture. Together with Arche Noah, an Austrian Organization promoting preservation and development of the diversity of cultivated plants, she is currently working with small and subsistence producers so they can re-introduce crop varieties from seeds recovered and stored in the National Gene Bank. Through this so-called on-farm preservation it is possible to restore a part of agrobiodiversity that has been lost.
“There is on-farm preservation which is in fact used for seeds not registered in the list of varieties and that is very important. That is the best way of sustainable use of agrobiodiversity,” states Gordana.
On-farm preservation also helps to restore and develop local knowledge of agrobiodiversity. Another ongoing project that contributes to both knowledge and the sustainable use of plant genetic resources in agriculture is an assessment of agrobiodiversity in the Balkan and Eastern European region realized in the framework of the ‘Tool for Agroecology and Performance Evaluation’ implemented by FAO and Schola Campesina. The goal is to promote agroecology as its approach is fundamentally based on the use of agrobiodiversity. Through TAPE, Gordana is working with local producers and raising awareness of the importance of biodiversity in agriculture and how it can be restored and maintained over time.