By Thomas Pesek,
FAO Senior Liaison Officer and AIARD Board Director
In recent years, there have been many publications and events surrounding The Future of Food and Agriculture. Many of these have concentrated on the unprecedented challenges posed by projected global population growth set against the backdrop of extreme weather. These have all registered cause for concern of one form or another. Yet FAO’s recently released State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture (Executive summary), the first ever global assessment of the state of biodiversity worldwide, issues a thunderous, earsplitting alarm bell for all who care to listen. The report is a thoroughly sobering read that should be keeping us all awake at night.
This first-of-its-kind report presents mounting and worrying evidence that the biodiversity that underpins our food systems is rapidly disappearing by the day – putting the future of our food, livelihoods, health and environment under severe threat. The report warns, once lost, species and biodiversity for food and agriculture cannot be recovered. There simply is no going back once species become extinct.
It’s worth noting that the report itself is significant not only for its sobering key findings but also because of how extremely comprehensive it is. It is the result of more than five years of work, drawing on information provided from 91 country reports (prepared by over 1 300 contributors), 27 reports from international organizations and with inputs from over 175 authors from around the world. As such, this is not merely a superficial snapshot. Importantly, the report also provides the first-ever baseline for policymakers and decision-makers to use in monitoring, measuring and reporting on progress moving forward.
Biodiversity for food and agriculture is all the plants and animals - wild and domesticated - that provide food, feed, fuel and fiber. It is also the myriad of organisms that support food production through ecosystem services – called “associated biodiversity”. This includes all the plants, animals and micro-organisms (such as insects, bats, birds, mangroves, corals, seagrasses, earthworms, soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria) that keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.
The report points to decreasing plant diversity in farmers’ fields, rising numbers of livestock breeds at risk of extinction and increases in the proportion of overfished fish stocks. Of some 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output, and only nine account for 66 percent of total crop production. 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. Of the 7,745 local (occurring in one country) breeds of livestock reported globally, 26 percent are at risk of extinction. Nearly a third of fish stocks are overfished, more than half have reached their sustainable limit.
Information from the 91 reporting countries reveals that wild food species and many species that contribute to ecosystem services that are vital to food and agriculture, including pollinators, soil organisms and natural enemies of pests, are rapidly disappearing.
Many associated biodiversity species are also under severe threat. These include birds, bats and insects that help control pests and diseases, soil biodiversity, and wild pollinators – such as bees, butterflies, bats and birds. Forests, rangelands, mangroves, seagrass meadows, coral reefs and wetlands in general – key ecosystems that deliver numerous services essential to food and agriculture and are home to countless species – are also rapidly declining.
The report is not without signs of hope, however. Things are changing, though these efforts needs to be intensified, vastly scaled up and better coordinated. The knowledge, technologies and practices already exist that can make agriculture and the broader food system more biodiversity friendly.
In fact, biodiversity-friendly practices are on the rise. The report highlights a growing interest in biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches. Eighty percent of the 91 countries indicate using one or more biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches such as: organic agriculture, integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, sustainable soil management, agroecology, sustainable forest management, agroforestry, diversification practices in aquaculture, ecosystem approach to fisheries and ecosystem restoration.
One example of this shift featured comes to us from California, where farmers are allowing 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.
So what is FAO doing about all of this? Safeguarding biodiversity has been a major area of focus since FAO’s establishment nearly 75 years ago. For example, the First Session of the FAO Conference held in 1945 identified the need for fishery conservation measures as food shortages in Europe and elsewhere after World War II had stimulated overfishing.
In the 1950s FAO adopted the International Plant Protection Convention, a multilateral treaty for the application of phytosanitary measures by governments to protect their plant resources from harmful pests introduced through international trade. In 1983, FAO established what is today known as the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which specifically deals with biodiversity relevant to food and agriculture.
FAO is working at the global level to promote policy coherence on these issues within the UN system and across our 194 Member State Governments to build consensus and promote action. Importantly, FAO is also working to build bridges between the agricultural sector and the environmental sector. Towards this end, FAO launched in 2017 the Biodiversity Mainstreaming Platform which is coordinating action across sectors, countries and regions In May 2018, FAO convened a Global Multi-stakeholder Dialogue on Biodiversity Mainstreaming across Agricultural Sectors. Moving forward, FAO is convening regional dialogues on Biodiversity Mainstreaming, the next one of which will be held in the Latin American and Caribbean region later this year and another thereafter in Asia in 2019.
At the end of day, alarming reports such as this one really matter most if they ultimately trigger action and change. And this report describes in great detail challenges and trends that at times may seem utterly impossible and without solutions. Yet if you read the report more closely, you will also find that these seemingly impossible challenges are actually great opportunities in disguise. So let us all exploit these windows of opportunity to act. Now. The future of food and agriculture depends on it, and on us.
The full report can be found HERE.
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