What is agricultural crop biodiversity?
Definitions vary. The Syngenta Foundation uses the term to mean the full spectrum of farmed plant species and their wild relatives. ‘Farmed’ plants are those that farmers grow for food, fodder, fiber, medicine, energy, and other domestic or industrial uses. For the Foundation, ‘agricultural crop biodiversity’ also includes pollinators and soil micro-organisms that sustain and support crop habitats and ecosystems.
Why is it important?
Mankind’s need for agricultural crops is greater than ever before. Global population continues to grow. There is also increasing demand for ‘higher grade’ food such as meat, notably in developing countries. Sources of oil and synthetic fertilizers are finite; there is a critical need to find renewable fuels and energy sources. At the same time, climate change and other challenges require the world’s food security systems to be adaptable and even more resilient.
What is happening?
The stark reality is that humans are meeting their demand for food and ‘socio-economic progress’ at the expense of the environment. Destruction of plant and animal habitats, deforestation, and exhaustion of natural resources are unrelenting. Among other problems, this behavior increases carbon dioxide levels and exacerbates climate change.
The global rate of species loss is greater now than at any known time in human history. Mankind failed to meet the United Nations’ 2001 target of significant reduction in the loss of biological diversity by 2010. And the threat continues: recent studies from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) show that over 20% of the world’s plant species remain in danger of extinction.
Mankind needs all its ingenuity to ensure a prosperous future for coming generations, with improved food security and all the vital benefits of sustaining the natural environment.
Most plants are inedible. So why is biodiversity important for food?
Most of our food comes from a very small number of crops. Out of 380,000 plant species, fewer than 20% are known to be eaten. Most plants are unpalatable, or produce poisonous chemicals to defend themselves against micro-organisms, insects, and foraging animals.
Humans have only domesticated about 150 plant species for farming. Of these, 30 account for more than 85% of global crop production. Food security therefore essentially depends on less than 0.008% of all plants in the world. That is a very slender basis on which to rely. In slightly simplified human reproduction terms: that is a bit like a country of 10 million people relying on just 40,000 couples to maintain population levels – which would mean 250 children per couple!
The world’s key crops are not only few in number. Their genetic diversity within species is also worryingly narrow. As a consequence, the likelihood of natural resilience to pests, diseases, and potential environmental changes is low. (To continue the loose human analogy: those 40,000 ‘survival couples’ come from a dozen closely-knit families and have many enemies!)
Why has this happened?
Several factors have contributed to the lack of crop biodiversity. One reason is the decrease in public investment in crop improvement over the last 25 years. National plant breeding programs have tended to maximize the use of genes already in domesticated varieties. Typically, they have put insufficient emphasis on breeding in more diverse genetic characteristics or native traits from wild relatives.
What is the Syngenta Foundation doing to improve matters?
The Foundation is taking a number of approaches to the problem of crop biodiversity.
One example is our partnership with Bioversity International. This aimed to develop innovative methods to support agricultural biodiversity conservation and indigenous farmers’ livelihoods. The PACS project on millet and quinoa in Peru and India intended to create economic opportunities for farmers to conserve crop biodiversity, thus also helping to alleviate rural poverty. Further background information on PACS is available here.
See what Bioversity International says about issues in agricultural biodiversity.
At a broader level, we support the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and implementation of the International Treaty on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (www.planttreaty.org). The CBD is creating a growing awareness of the vulnerability of species and the need for education, monitoring, and conservation of species and habitats (www.cbd.int).
We also supported the creation of the Global Crop Diversity Trust with its Svaltbard seed vault in Norway. The Trust conserves and makes available crop genetic diversity for food security worldwide.
Other pages of this website illustrate further projects to improve the choice of crop varieties and increase their resilience.
How does the Foundation view future needs?
The Foundation believes that the way forward is to achieve a more sustainable balance of man’s requirements, biodiversity, and environmental conservation. This requires:
- intensification of sustainable agricultural practices to create greater productivity of nutritious food and protect environmentally vulnerable areas,
- improvement of water management and land use,
- better management and judicious use of fertilizers and pesticides,
- policy-making by governments that fully considers food security issues alongside environmental sustainability and maintenance of biodiversity,
- education and stewardship of new technology developments and agricultural biotechnology,
- broadening the genetic resilience base of crops and increasing use of native traits from wild relatives to create modern varieties adapted to changing environmental demands, pests, weeds, and diseases, and
- innovative market-driven opportunities for farmers to provide agrobiodiversity services.
Find out more about sustainable intensification