Overreliance on too few plant varieties and animal species is leaving the food system unnecessarily exposed to shocks and stresses, according to a new report.
Researchers from Bioversity International said that agrobiodiversity holds the key to future food security and could play a critical role in tackling wider global targets such as reducing poverty and malnutrition, reversing environmental degradation and combatting climate change.
They concluded, however, that we are failing to protect agrobiodiversity and tap into its potential to transform our food system for the better.
Of the estimated 7,000 edible plant species, just 30 are used to feed the world. Researchers said that tens of thousands of alternatives exist that can grow in difficult environments, have high nutrient content and have potential to increase their yields. However, they noted that almost 80% of land areas dedicated to cereals only grow wheat, maize and rice, while traditional crops and varieties represent just 2% of material stored in genebanks worldwide.
The report details a range of affordable, nutrient-rich foods that can alleviate the burden of malnutrition affecting two billion people, such as the vitamin A-rich To’o banana and the darkina fish, which is high in iron and calcium.
It highlights the potential for heat and drought tolerant traits to be found in traditional crop varieties, at a time when climate change is expected to reduce the yield of major crops like wheat by 6% with each degree Celsius increase in temperature.
It also argues that biodiversity-based practices such as intercropping trees with vegetables and rotating crops can significantly boost carbon and nitrogen content in the soil, helping replenish the 33% of the world’s farmland that is degraded.
“Until now, no single study has provided the evidence to showcase the extraordinary impact that investing in agrobiodiversity can have on improving food systems and advancing sustainable development at the same time,” said Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International.
“This new guide provides evidence on the practices that work for those ready to take action, and should convince more businesses and policymakers that agrobiodiversity is a triple-win investment.”