By guest contributor Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RD, LD
The year 2014 was the hottest on record, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)1 and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).2 Rainfall in crucial agricultural zones is diminishing, and small farmers in the developing world are facing desertification of farmland due to climate change.3 According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “In the context of climate change, the resilience of agro-ecosystems* is particularly important”4—resilience is defined as the ability of an ecosystem** to recover from or resist disturbances and perturbation, so that the key components and processes of the system remain the same.5
Numerous studies and practical experiences show that biodiversity contributes to the resilience and stability of farming systems.5 Conservation of biodiversity is recognized by scientists and farmers as an important element of sustainable agriculture and is also of value to food security, nutrition, and livelihoods.4-7 Crop diversity provides resilience to climate variations and changes in soil quality or water availability. Seed diversity is also an important facet of resilience; growing a wide range of crops and crop varieties means some will always survive in case of a shock such as pests, flooding or drought.8 Ensuring sustainability and resilience is inarguably one of the most important roles that biodiversity plays in the food system.9
Environmentally sustainable, resilient production systems will become an increasingly urgent need in a world where multiple planetary boundaries have been crossed.10 This includes climate change, loss of biodiversity (now called “change in biosphere integrity”), land-system change, and altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).11 To view the planetary boundaries framework, including which boundaries have been crossed, see this infographic by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Climate change and biosphere integrity are the “core boundaries.” Biological diversity is still vitally important; however, the planetary boundaries framework emphasizes the human impact on ecosystem functions.11
Biodiversity is defined as “the variety and variability of animals, plants, and micro-organisms at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels.”12 Biodiversity (in particular, genetic diversity) is being lost at an alarming rate.6 While 30,000 terrestrial plants are known to be edible, only five cereal crops provide 60% of the world population’s energy intake. See this infographic on Genetic Resources and Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture by the FAO.6
Building our knowledge of genetic resources for food production, including where they are found, what characteristics they have, and how they can be managed, is critical. However, many locally adapted varieties and breeds of crops and livestock—as well as trees, fish, insects and microorganisms—are poorly documented and may be lost before their potential roles in climate change adaptation are recognized.7 Efforts should be made to avoid practices that destroy biodiversity or undermine the health of agro-ecosystems,4 including the use of broad-spectrum insecticides that may negatively affect pollinators, such as neonicotinoid insecticides.7,13,14 ***
Organic agriculture is being recognized more and more openly as a holistic solution to restoring biodiversity to our agro-ecosystems.5 Organic farmers are both custodians and users of biodiversity at gene, species, and ecosystem levels. At the gene level, locally-adapted seeds and breeds are preferred by organic farmers for their greater resistance to diseases and resilience to climatic stress.12 At the species level, a diverse combination of plants and animals optimize nutrient and energy cycling on the farm. At the ecosystem level, maintenance of natural areas within and around organic fields and absence of synthetic chemical inputs creates habitats suitable for wildlife. Reliance on natural pest control methods maintains species diversity and avoids emergence of chemical-resistant pests, or “superbugs.”12
On average, organic farms support 34% more plant, insect, and animal species than conventional farms. As a consequence, organic farming methods may assist in halting the continued loss of diversity in industrialized nations.15 There are approximately 43.1 million hectares of land devoted to organic agriculture around the world,16 and demand for organic produce is stronger than ever.17
It is important to note that a sole focus on increasing crop yields will not solve the problem of world hunger.10 It must be balanced by other factors including the need to preserve biodiversity and assess human impact on ecosystems. Increased production is, however, critical for meeting the economic needs of poor farmers who make up the largest portion of the world’s chronically hungry people.10 Agro-ecological farming methods, including organic farming methods, provide low cost methods for achieving this goal.10
Further investment in agro-ecological research has the potential to improve productivity of sustainable agricultural methods to equal or better conventional yields in various cropping systems.10 According to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, “We need innovations that can increase human well-being and at the same time enhance the capacity of ecosystems to produce services.” 18 Scaling up innovative systems such as farmers’ seed banks (local seed exchange systems that promote agro-biodiversity), farmer field schools, and participatory plant breeding is important for coping with climate change and reducing hunger at the same time.19
What Can You Do to Preserve Biodiversity?
- Become a seed saver. There are many good reasons to become a seed saver including saving money and becoming a steward of diversity. For more information, see 40 Reasons to Save Seeds and these Seed Saving Resources, both by the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange.
- Join or start a ‘seed library’ in your community. A seed library is a place, often in a public library or community center, where any community member can get seeds for free or for a nominal fee. Seed libraries are an important step for developing a network of seed savers, creating locally-adapted plant varieties, responding proactively to climate change, and preserving genetic diversity. Click here for more Information about seed libraries.
- Start your own home or kitchen garden. See this step-by-step guide from The Rodale Institute. Kitchen Gardeners International also has a plethora of information on how to start a kitchen garden.
- Purchase foods from organic farmers at a farmers market or join a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. To find organic farmers in your area, visit Local Harvest.
About the author: Dr. McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RD, LD is a consultant, speaker and writer with areas of expertise in community food security, public health nutrition and sustainable food systems. You can learn more about her work at www.sustainablerdn.com.
*An agro-ecosystem is an ecosystem designed and managed by humans to produce agricultural goods.5
**An ecosystem is a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the non-living physical environment interacting as a functional unit. Ecosystems include physical and chemical components such as soils, waters, and nutrients that support the organisms living within them and interactions among all organisms in a given habitat. The health and well-being of human populations depend upon the services provided by ecosystems and their components—including organisms, soil, water, and nutrients.5 Agriculture lands and coasts managed sustainably as ecosystems contribute to wider functions such as maintenance of water quality, water infiltration, erosion control, carbon sequestration, and pollination.12
*** Neonicotinoid insecticides are prohibited from being used on organic farms.
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Center s for Environmental Information. Global Summary Information – December 2014. Available at: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/summary-info/global/201412
- Nink E. Recipes for change: chefs feature ingredients from small farmers adapting to climate change. Food Tank. August 19th Available at: http://foodtank.com/news/2015/08/small-farmers-and-celebrity-chefs-partner-to-create-recipesforchange
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Coping with Climate Change – The Role of Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Rome, Italy: FAO; 2015. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3866e.pdf
- Underwood T, McCullum-Gomez C, Harmon A, et al. Organic agriculture supports biodiversity and sustainable food production. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 2011:6(4):398-423. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19320248.2011.627301
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Biodiversity for food security and nutrition: 30 years of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture [Infographic]. February 2015. Rome, Italy: FAO. Available at: http://www.fao.org/resources/infographics/infographics-details/en/c/174199/
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Genetic diversity a hidden tool in coping with climate change (news release). Rome, Italy: FAO. January 15th Available at: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/275041/icode
- Cowman S. Seeds of Resilience – How Seed Diversity Strengthens Climate Resilience in one Andean Community. Cochabamba, Bolivia: The Democracy Center, May 2015. Available at: http://democracyctr.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Seeds-of-Resilience.pdf
- Powell B, Thilsted SH, Ickowtiz A, et al. Improving diets with wild and cultivated biodiversity from across the landscape. Food Sec. 2015;7:535-554.
- Ponisio LC, M’Gonigle LK, Mace KC, et al. Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. R. Soc. B. 2015;282:20141396.
- Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sustainability Science for Biosphere Stewardship. Planetary Boundaries – a safe operating space for humanity. January 22nd 2015. Available at: http://www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/research-news/1-15-2015-planetary-boundaries-2.0—new-and-improved.html
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Agricultural Biodiversity in FAO. Rome, Italy: FAO; 2008. Available at: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/i0112e/i0112e.pdf
- The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides. Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems. Notre Dame de Londres, France: The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides. January 2015. Available at: http://www.tfsp.info/assets/WIA_2015.pdf
- Pecenka JR, Lundgren JG. Non-target effects of clothianidin on monarch butterflies. Sci Nat. 2015;102:19. DOI 10.1007/s00114-015-1270-y
- Tuck SL, Winqvist C, Mota F, et al. Land-use intensity and the effects of organic farming on biodiversity: a hierarchical meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Ecology. 2014; DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12219.
- McCarthy N. The World’s Largest Markets for Organic Products [Infographic]. July 27th 2015. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2015/07/27/the-worlds-largest-markets-for-organic-products-infographic/
- Willer H, Lernoud J (eds). The World of Organic Agriculture. Statistics and Emerging Trends. FiBL-IFOAM Report. Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Frick Switzerland, and IFOAM – Organics International, Bonn, Germany; February 2015. Available at: https://www.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/shop/1663-organic-world-2015.pdf
- Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sustainability Science for Biosphere Stewardship. What is resilience? Available at: http://www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/research-news/2-19-2015-what-is-resilience.html
- De Schutter, O. Seed Policies and the Right to Food: Enhancing Agrobiodiversity and Encouraging Innovation. 2009. Available at: http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20091021_report-ga64_seed-policies-and-the-right-to-food_en.pdf