B is for biodiversity


20 September 2014

The latest in our A to Z of food sovereignty: biodiversity

“I used to see 30 types of bean in the market, but now I only see 2” – Ugandan farmer

“For centuries the agricultures of developing countries were built upon the local resources of land, water, and other resources, as well as local varieties and indigenous knowledge. This has nurtured biologically and genetically diverse smallholder farms with a robustness and a built-in resilience that has helped them to adjust to rapidly changing climates, pests, and diseases” – Miguel Altieri, prominent agroecology scientist-activist.

The United Nations estimates that up to 75% of plant varieties were lost in the last century. It also predicts that almost a quarter of the non-domesticated or wild relatives of our main food crops – potatoes, beans, peanuts – will be lost by the middle of this century due to our rapidly changing climate.

Shrinking diversity
Image from this article.

Biodiversity matters because lesser known plants can hold the key to future food production. Plants that are resistant to heat, drought, salt, pests, and low soil fertility can help farmers to grow food in spite of difficult conditions. Growing a wide range of plants helps to insulate smallholder farmers from sudden weather changes or the arrival of a new – or old – crop diseases, as well as unpredictable social, political and economic circumstances. Biodiversity is one of the keys to a resilient food system.

Mazie seeds

Maize diversity line-up - Photo credit - Global Crop Diversity Trust

The type of farming system used to produce food can have a huge impact on biodiversity. For example organic farms systems can have up to 30% more biodiversity on them than conventional farms, which tend to grow single crop varieties over large spaces, reducing diversity. In Africa, 33 million small farms, making up around 80% of all farms on the continent, produce 90% of the agricultural output from the region. Many of these are mixed farms with a high level of crop diversity. This diversity contributes to people’s nutrition and health, and helps to create more resilient sources of income and ecological sustainability.


About the A-Z of food sovereignty project

The A-Z of Food Sovereignty in Africa shows the positive alternatives to corporate-led agriculture. A new letter was posted each day in the lead up to World Food Day arrived on 16 October 2014.

Africa’s small-scale food producers already know how to produce enough food sustainably to feed themselves but the political and economic rules which govern the food system are set against them. These rules are written by and for multinational companies and political elites, in support of a global food system that benefits them rather than the millions of smallholders and family farmers who produce the food and get little in return.

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