Agricultural biodiversity

Poor farming communities are increasingly excluded from access to and control over the resources and technology needed to sustain their livelihoods and the local environment. Moreover, globalised trade regimes are reducing local choice and control over markets and production systems and are threatening the integrity of the global genetic commons through increasing pressures for their privatisation.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the international United Nations organisation mandated to defend these commons and ensure their sustainable use.

Hunger and Climate Change: some practical answers

7 April 2009, London

In this event, hosted by Practical Action, panellists including Professor Bob Watson, Patrick Holden and Saleemul Huq will discuss the new policies and technologies for agriculture that will be needed to cope with climate change. More ...

Biodiverse agriculture for a changing climate (PDF, 329k)
Climate change will bring enormous and unpredictable changes to agriculture which will affect global food supplies and disproportionately impact on the poor. Emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture, largely from intensive systems, contribute significantly to global warming. This paper, prepared in collaboration with Barbara Dinham (Director, Pesticide Action Network UK 2000-2006), explores biodiverse agriculture as a realistic and proven alternative to industrial methods of production. Practiced by millions of small-scale food producers and organic growers, biodiverse agriculture can limit and adjust to climate change while replenishing the natural resources on which food production depends. full paper | summary

Agriculture at a crossroads: implementing the findings of the International Agricultural Assessment (IAASTD)
On 30 October 2008, Prof Bob Watson, IAASTD Director and DEFRA Chief Scientist, addressed this meeting in the Houses of Parliament, organised by the UK Food Group, with responses from Patrick Mulvany of Practical Action and Jane Cotter of Greenpeace. Read more ...
Agriculture at a crossroads: a summary of the IAASTD findings by Patrick Mulvany, Practical Action

International Call to Action on the world food emergency and the underlying loss of biodiversity Social movements and civil society organisations, including Practical Action as part of the UK Food Group and the IPC for Food Sovereignty, have joined together to develop a global plan of action for food and agriculture and are willing to discuss this plan with governments and intergovernmental organisations that will be attending the Rome Food Summit.

Why the GM route won't feed a hungry Africa
Genetically-modified crop technology is not a solution to a hungry Kenya and Africa in general. Building on Practical Action's work experiences with small-scale farmers in Kenya and Zimbabwe and drawing lessons from the failed "green revolution" in Africa we call into question the overall value of GM crops to Africa's food security situation and to local farmers in particular.

A Global Genetic Commons

The Earth's environmental resources are a common inheritance of all humankind, which should be held in shared trust for a common future. In many developing countries, especially in Africa, 80 per cent of people gain their living from the use of natural resources. One product of this human interaction with nature is what is now commonly called Agricultural Biodiversity - a key component of the global genetic commons.

Agricultural Biodiversity

A Sudanese farmer with his Okra crop

Agricultural biodiversity is a vital sub-set of biodiversity and includes crop, forest, livestock, aquatic and microbial species that support agricultural and food production. It has been carefully selected and developed by humankind, whose food and livelihood security depend on the sustained management of those diverse biological resources that are important for food and agriculture. Millions of lives and livelihoods depend directly on agricultural biodiversity. It is also the basis of global food security.

Agricultural biodiversity has developed through the application of the knowledge and skills - the technology - of farmers, herders and fisherfolk in a wide range of agroecosystems over 10,000 years. Whilst agricultural biodiversity originates in specific farming communities, it has been shared widely and is considered by many to be part of the much-threatened global commons. The protection of these 'commons' from biopiracy (privatisation through patents and other intellectual property rights) or the spread of Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs or Terminator Technologies) and the implementation of Farmers' Rights to a share of the benefits for their contribution to the development of agricultural biodiversity are two crucial elements in the conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity. They are a focus of the tension between farmers and corporations mediated by governments and intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation.

Agricultural biodiversity is under immediate threat. Around 1.6 billion people depend on farm-saved seed, yet, more than 90 per cent of crop varieties have been lost from farmers' fields in the past century and animal breeds are disappearing at the rate of 5 per cent per year.

The rate of loss may well accelerate as global trade rules, intellectual property rights regimes, the concentration of agricultural research and development on inappropriate technological 'solutions', and now the introduction and promotion of genetically engineered organisms, all combine to erode local resources from the fields of smallholder farmers. Of particular concern is the pollution by genetically engineered crop varieties of Centres of Diversity in which the world's food crops originally developed, e.g. Maize/Corn in Mexico, which contain the widest range of diversity of local varieties and their wild relatives; this is leading to the contamination of genebanks which store some of these crops' historical diversity.

It is urgent that the world's policy makers create a significant shift in international and national policy and practice towards supporting farmers' efforts to:

  • Conserve, manage and develop agricultural biodiversity
  • Realise their Farmers' Rights to the productive resources they need to achieve sustainable livelihoods
  • Contribute to global food security
  • Manage terrestrial ecosystems and provide ecological services
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