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You are here: Home Resources Further reading Agrobiodiversity in the international arena

Agrobiodiversity in the international arena

last modified Jan 16, 2013 12:45 PM
Agrobiodiversity is the main subject of many different international efforts, involving representatives and organisations in all countries. What’s being discussed, for example, as part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity? What other programmes or projects are there?

United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity

As an international body, the UN recognises that the Earth's natural resources are vital to humanity's economic and social development. There is a growing recognition that biological diversity is a global asset of tremendous value to present and future generations. On the other hand the rates of deforestation and species extinction caused by human activities continue to grow and represent a big threat to the world`s biodiversity. Concerning these issues, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity was established after the 1992 Rio Summit. The Convention aims to support the conservation and sustainable use of the biological diversity as well as fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.

To fulfill those objectives there is an International Strategic Plan that was revised and updated in 2010, and which defines targets until 2020. These include bringing close to zero, or at least halve the rate of loss of natural habitats; restore at least 15% of degraded areas through conservation and restoration activities; and establish a conservation target of 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10% of marine and coastal areas. Currently, 193 parties have signed the Convention and each country involved is required to prepare a National Biodiversity Strategy. A number of countries have invested a lot of resources in defining their national strategies and implementing their Action Plans.

However, these plans and policies are not always being translated into the necessary action on the ground, and have very little or no impact on the fight against biodiversity loss. The main obstacles include a lack of financial resources and technical expertise, weak administrative and institutional structure, lack of political will and interest, poor enforcement of legislation and limited mainstreaming and cross-sectoral integration. Analysts mention that “people should not hope that the solutions will come from the top”.

To make a real change, communities must get organised and aware of the problems that are in front of us. National Strategies and Action Plans are important, but they will only have a real impact on the ground if understood and supported by local authorities and community.

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Agricultural Biodiversity Program

The Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity has established seven thematic working programmes, among them the Agricultural Biodiversity Program. The homogenisation of agriculture due to intensification of agricultural systems, coupled with the specialisation seen in plant and animals breeders, is one of the greatest causes of agricultural biodiversity loss. According to the FAO, it is estimated that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity found in agricultural crops has been lost over the last century, and this genetic erosion continues. In addition, modern agricultural practices can also impact biodiversity in different ways – for example, with unsustainable demands on water, overgrazing, as well as excessive use of nutrients and chemical inputs to control weeds, pests and diseases.

Furthermore, the natural land and habitat conversion to large-scale agricultural production also causes a significant loss of biodiversity. Farmers’ traditional knowledge is key to both sustain biodiversity and to ensure global food security but it`s necessary to combine it with other components such as agricultural policies, incentives, markets and consumption patterns.

The Program of Work on Agricultural Biodiversity is based on four elements: Assessment, to provide an overview of the status and trends of the world's agricultural biodiversity; Adaptive Management, to identify adaptive management practices, technologies and policies that promote the positive effects and mitigate the negative impacts of agriculture on biodiversity; Capacity Building: to strengthen the capacities of farmers, indigenous and local communities, and their organizations and other stakeholders, to manage agricultural biodiversity sustainably and Mainstreaming: to support the development of national plans and strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity and to promote their integration in sectoral and cross-sectoral plans and programmes.

The programme also addresses the following cross-cutting initiatives: International Initiative for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Pollinators; International Initiative for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Soil Biodiversity; International Initiative on Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition; and the Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs).

Although this is a very interesting initiative, it is clearly difficult to implement and to have a significant impact on the ground. The latest activity presented on the website was the organisation of the Biodiversity and Agriculture Day in 2008 (May 22nd), aiming to highlight the importance of sustainable agriculture, and not only to preserve biodiversity, but also to ensure that we will be able to feed the world, maintain agricultural livelihoods, and enhance human well being.

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Biodiversity Products

It is well known that biodiversity brings many services to the planet and to all societies, like food, shelter, fuel, water and soil conservation. Biodiversity products also play an important role in poverty reduction and sustainable human development. In one hand they generate income and on the other hand the people involved nurture the environment to ensure that the wealth of biodiversity is available for future generations.

The United Nations Global Environment Facility (GEF), in alliance with the civil society, NGO’s and Community Based Organisations (CBO’s) created an on line portal of biodiversity products around the world. Through this website it is possible to find further information of nearly two hundred products, and its importance to the local community. The ultimate aim of the online biodiversity products portal is to educate a wide audience on the importance of biodiversity for local communities, and show the potential economic, environmental and social losses if we don’t make biodiversity and ecosystem services inclusive to our broader development objectives.

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Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project

The Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project (BFN) is a multi-country, multi-partner initiative led by Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey and funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The project was launched in April 2012, mainly to address growing concerns over the rapid disappearance of agricultural biodiversity, particularly traditional crops and wild species with nutritional potential.

The cultivation of these species in diverse systems brings many benefits because they require lower levels of external inputs, contribute to soil and water conservation and revalue the farmer`s traditional knowledge. Besides, these foodstuffs have the potential to fulfill many of the nutritional requirements needed for a healthy and balanced diet and can be a solution to tackle malnutrition in many underdeveloped countries.

One of the components of the project is to provide enough scientific evidences on the nutritional value of local agricultural biodiversity, which is usually very scarce, to ultimately enhance its conservation and sustainable use. Another component is to raise awareness to reverse the negative perception that is often associated with local and traditional food species. Through mechanisms such as dedicated stamps, radio programmes, diversity kits, theatre productions, songs, recipes and cooking demonstrations this is being done at a community level.

At national levels, the involvement of the mass media has been key to reinforce the message, as have been innovative communication approaches that use “champions” to deliver the punch line. The third component is the influence on policies. The lack of evidence linking biodiversity to dietary diversity, health and nutrition, along with limited examples of effective methods to deliver and mobilize biodiversity for nutrition is an obstacle to “convince” policy-makers to put agricultural biodiversity in the centre of future nutrition strategies.

In order to improve partnerships between the agriculture, health, education and environment sectors as well as the private sector the project will provide a platform for collaborative research and information exchange on biodiversity for food and nutrition.

Furthermore, it will create linkages with other global cross-sectoral partnerships and initiatives in which agricultural biodiversity is recognised as playing a major role in nutrition.

Lastly, the project is now an official partner of the Global Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) Program, an interdisciplinary graduate degree program that involves a global network with 22 universities. The BFN Project intends to link in-country MDP interns to work with the project in Brazil and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka the project is being set together with two other initiatives; the Biodiversity for Adaptation to Climate Project, and the Pricing the Biodiversity of the Island Project. The main goal is to strengthen and enhance small scale sustainable agriculture to improve food security and nutrition, economic development and adaptation to climate change.

In Kenya the project activities are being planned together with the Ministries of Agriculture and Public Health, the National Museums of Kenya, Kenyatta University and the National Genebank of Kenya. Activities in early 2013 will focus on collecting information on locally important agrobiodiversity species to be targeted for nutritional composition analysis, as well as on dietary diversity. Besides, the nutritional and health status of communities living in Busia County, western Kenya will be studied.

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Biodiversity International

This is presented as “the only global non-profit research organisation in the world focused on agricultural biodiversity”. Bioversity International is a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and currently works with more than 700 partners in over 100 countries worldwide. Their goal is to research and promote the use and conservation of agricultural biodiversity by working with partners to help them implement change on the ground in order to achieve better nutrition, improve smallholders’ livelihoods and enhance agricultural sustainability.

The identification and measurement of the impacts of the research and work they do can be a challenge, as the ultimate benefits, such as the conservation of biodiversity or the development of methods to empower communities to manage their genetic resources more effectively, cannot be as easily measured and monetized as increases in yield or efficiency in input use. The impacts generated are often indirect and sometimes intangible, which makes attribution difficult or even impossible.

Furthermore, Bioversity does not have laboratories or field stations, but works through partnerships with other institutions that range from large international organisations to small community-based organizations. Bioversity’s impact assessment studies therefore start with the assumption that impact is achieved by many partners working together, which makes extremely difficult to quantify contributions toward, or even apportion credit for, impact among the partners.

Still, it is clear that there are many positives impacts, where we can highlight the assistance in the creation and improvement of germplasm banks around the world; the creation of sustainable growing and conservation guidelines, which are currently being distributed to farmers; the development of national information systems for the production, conservation and usage of crop wild relatives in several countries; empowerment of local farmers about local crop varieties and agrobiodiversity through knowledge sharing and capacity building and technical support for policy makers decisions.

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