2 December 2016
Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems: The Value of an Agrobiodiversity Index
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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Mainstreaming agrobiodiversity in food systems is essential if they are to be sustainable.

Biodiversity provides a source of nutrient-rich, culturally appropriate foods, and at the same time, a component of low input, sustainable food production systems.

An Agrobiodiversity Index is being developed as a tool to support the mainstreaming of biodiversity in sustainable food systems.

Mainstreaming biodiversity is the theme of the thirteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which will take place in Cancun, Mexico, 4-17 December 2016. Mainstreaming biodiversity means that specific components of biodiversity (e.g. genetic/varietal, species, landscape) are integrated into other sectors, such as poverty reduction, climate adaptation, health, agriculture and tourism, for the generation of mutual benefits. Integration usually takes the form of introducing biodiversity into other sectors’ plans, policies and practices. For example, in Brazil, the promotion of local and indigenous biodiversity has recently been included in dietary guidelines and in public procurement strategies (e.g. for school meals). The aim is to achieve better nutrition while also reducing synthetic inputs into production systems and conserving native food biodiversity – a triple win.

“Mainstreaming biodiversity considerations across [agriculture, forests, fisheries and aquaculture] is essential in ensuring not only the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, but also the continued vitality of these sectors. There is a large potential for more biodiversity-friendly management measures in these sectors, and to a large extent, biodiversity-based solutions have a significant part to play in these measures.” Dr. Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, Executive Secretary, Convention on Biological Diversity, October 2016

Mainstreaming is important to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sustainability means recognizing that economic, environmental and social concerns are all fundamentally connected. Addressing them in a disconnected way will lead to long-term failure. On the other hand, addressing them together allows trade-offs to be explicitly considered and synergies to be found between sectors. Mainstreaming biodiversity in sustainable food systems is one potential path to achieving this.

A food system is sustainable when it is “protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, with optimal use of natural and human resources, supportive of food and nutrition security, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable, nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy, for present and future generations.” (IPES-Food 2015).

Biodiversity is key to achieving sustainable food systems. Using food biodiversity to diversify diets is a critical element in response to global malnutrition. For example, the nutrient content between different varieties of the same species can vary a thousandfold. This information can be used to maximize nutritional adequacy of diets. On the production side, managing farming systems sustainably means that agriculture needs to be about much more than yields of commodity crops in highly simplified and specialized landscapes. Agricultural biodiversity is used by rural communities worldwide in time-tested practices that can confer increased resilience to farms, communities and landscapes and provide positive externalities, such as improved soil quality, the need for less irrigation, reduced pollutants and more pollinators.

A primary obstacle to mainstreaming biodiversity in sustainable food systems is the lack of a consistent way for governments, the private sector and other decision-makers to assess agricultural biodiversity in food systems, track change, or measure the effects that its use has on other issues and sectors. While many indicators and methods exist to measure aspects of agricultural biodiversity, they are scattered across disciplines (e.g. conservation, ecology, agriculture, markets, nutrition) and scales (from crop varieties to species to ecosystems). This limits the effective management of agricultural biodiversity and its contributions to sustainable food systems.

Bioversity International is therefore working with interested countries and corporations to develop an Agrobiodiversity Index to measure and manage agricultural biodiversity across four connected dimensions. They include:

  • Healthy diverse diets, which contribute to: SDG 2 (Zero Hunger); SDG 3 (Health and Well-being); and Aichi Target 14 (Restoring Ecosystems).
  • Multiple benefits from production systems, which contribute to: SDG 2 (Zero Hunger); SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production); SDG 13 (Climate Action); SDG 15 (Life on Land); Aichi Target 4 (Sustainable Consumption and Production); Aichi Target 7 (Sustainable Agriculture, Aquaculture and Forestry); Aichi Target 8 (Pollution); Aichi Target 14 (Restoring Ecosystems); and Aichi Target 15 (Ecosystem Resilience and Carbon Stocks).
  • Diversity-supplying seed systems, which contribute to: SDG 13 (Climate Action); SDG 15 (Life on Land); Aichi Target 4 (Sustainable Consumption and Production); Aichi Target 14 (Restoring Ecosystems).
  • Conservation of agricultural biodiversity, which contributes to: SDG 2, target 5 (Maintain genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species); Aichi Target 7 (Sustainable Agriculture, Aquaculture and Forestry); and Aichi Target 13 (Maintain genetic diversity of cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and of wild relatives).

The Agrobiodiversity Index will provide policymakers and private investors with easy-to-digest data that allow them to link decisions across human nutrition, environmental protection, agricultural production, biodiversity conservation and economic development. It will be comprised of a simple set of measures to: apply across four interconnected dimensions of diets, production, seed systems and conservation; use in different locations by different actors to provide insights into trends in agricultural biodiversity issues; provide key data for allocation of financial resources; and measure progress towards relevant targets in the SDGs and the CBD Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020.

As a first step in the process of developing the Agrobiodiversity Index, a forthcoming book, ‘Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems: Scientific Foundations for an Agrobiodiversity Index,’ compiles evidence of the role of agricultural biodiversity in these four dimensions. The next step will be to test the feasibility of the Agrobiodiversity Index for multiple uses (national governments, investors, companies) by further engaging with stakeholders and piloting an initial design. Two events at the CBD COP 13, Agrobiodiversity Index Business Consultation (3 December) and Side Event #1718, Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems (5 December), will be an opportunity to discuss the concept further with stakeholders from the private, public and civil sectors.

Mainstreaming biodiversity in sustainable food systems is of critical importance for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Bioversity International is committed to developing tools, practices and policies for that to happen. We welcome input from other experts and potential users interested in collaborating on the development of the Agrobiodiversity Index.


M. Ann Tutwiler, Director General of Bioversity International, a.tutwiler@cgiar.org


More information:

Find out more about the Agrobiodiversity Index

Download the Executive Summary of the publication: Mainstreaming Agricultural Biodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems http://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/user_upload/campaigns/CBD/Mainstreaming_Agrobiodiversity_Sustainable_Food_Systems_Summary.pdf

What’s happening at COP 13?

Prototype development of the Agrobiodiversity Index is supported by the European Commission Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development.

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