Heirloom tomatoes at a novel food market in Rotterdam. Photo by Stef De Haan (CIP)

A new book from MIT Press proposes and develops an expanded concept of agrobiodiversity, which, it points out, will be essential to sustainable food systems for the future. Agrobiodiversity: Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future is the result of a Strüngmann Forum that brought together experts from diverse disciplines to consider the solutions agrobiodiversity offers for greater sustainability. The book reflects the forum and discussions and calls for an integrated framework that pulls together evolutionary ecology and biocultural interactions, human health and nutrition, global change and governance.

“New ideas that build on and integrate transdisciplinary insights need to be set in motion,” say Stef de Haan, Andean Food Systems Researcher at the International Potato Center (CIP), and Karl Zimmerer, Professor of Environment and Society Geography, Ecology, and Rural Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, who organized the forum and co-edited the book. Broadening the definition of agrobiodiversity, to acknowledge that it is “simultaneously social and biological by nature, applicable to microbiomes, genes, species, habitats, and landscapes as well as to diets, historical, cultural, and social dimensions,” is a key step. Without that, as the title of the lead chapter on food systems makes plain, more of the same will result in more of the same.

Farmers and food system diversity

In the 1970s, people predicted that new, highly productive varieties would wipe out the diversity in farmers’ fields. The catastrophe was not as bad as people feared, because farmers know a lot more about biodiversity and how to use it than many researchers previously gave them credit for. Yet, accelerated global changes exert new pressure on agrobiodiversity, while its adaptive potential requires continuous monitoring. “Current challenges and opportunities, from climate change to food system transformations, require the new agrobiodiversity framework,” notes Zimmerer. That is a key insight that the book brings to the science and policy communities.

Indigenous people and smallholder farmers seek to minimize risk and to provide locally valued foods, rather than to maximize production, and they use agrobiodiversity to do so. Growing traditional crops alongside new varieties smooths out differences in harvests and market prices from year to year, offering stability.

“It is a mistake to associate smallholder farming with being less productive,” says de Haan. “Such systems are intensive and efficient in their own right.”

Farmers with a pachamanca in Tayacaja, Huancavelica. Photo by Stef De Haan (CIP)

Learning from farmers

Pioneering work by the CIP with farmers in northern and central Peru resulted in the Catalog of ancestral potato varieties from Chugay, La Libertad, published in 2015, and the Catalog of native potato varieties from the southeast of the department of Junin – Peru in 2017. These two catalogues identify 129 and 147 farmer varieties respectively, and include information on each type’s nutritional potential and genetic and ethnobotanical characteristics. They also record farmers’ knowledge about their potatoes, bearing witness to “a vast ancestral culture” while simultaneously making a valuable contribution to scientific knowledge.

The CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) is expanding this kind of research with farmers as equal partners, working in Benin, Papua New Guinea and Peru to document the diversity of root and tuber crops in their fields. Today’s results provide a baseline for monitoring changes in diversity in the future and will also allow researchers to compare in-situ diversity with the material collected in the past and now stored ex-situ, in genebanks.

Stef de Haan says that this type of research demonstrates that the role of CGIAR is not to replace landrace diversity, the old view. “Rather, we want to understand how diversity interacts with new technologies and societal change to maximize the benefits for family farming.”

Of course, under some circumstances there is a need to augment landrace diversity. “There has not been the wipe-out predicted in the 1970s,” says de Haan, “but diversity in farmers’ hands is dynamic and some things get lost while others are added.”

Zimmerer adds “A major motivation for the research and new vision of our book has been to move beyond the old view of agrobiodiversity as traditional and outdated, on the one hand, and all changes as modern and antithetical to agrobiodiversity, on the other.”

On-farm diversity of Peruvian chili’s. Photo by Stef De Haan (CIP)

More agrobiodiversity needed

New needs arise too. The climate crisis, for example, has seen the spread of pests like the potato tuber moth and increasingly unpredictable weather, including unexpected frosts, more severe hailstorms and drought. It has also seen potatoes climb the Andes to 4,400 metres above sea level, expanding the area in which the crop can provide sustenance for local people. Not only in the Andes, but everywhere farmers depend on agrobiodiversity, they will need new and old varieties.

Some will come from genebanks. CIP pioneered repatriation of potato varieties, returning genebank samples collected some time ago to today’s farmers. Others will come from the farmers themselves, as they make new selections and share them among neighbouring communities. RTB plans to evaluate all the strategies employed to promote in-situ conservation and use of varietal diversity, including repatriation, community seed banks, market development, catalogues and benefit-sharing mechanisms.

“It is time to document best practices and the shortcomings of different strategies and interventions,” de Haan says.

Beyond the climate crisis

While the changing climate is an important driver of changes in agrobiodiversity, urbanization and the transition to more globalized and industrialized food systems are other drivers that could have a disproportionate impact on roots, tubers and bananas.

Urbanization has exerted a particular pull on young people, anxious to find a better life off the farm. “This trend will be difficult to reverse,” de Haan admits. Here too, though, agricultural biodiversity has a part to play. “Smallholder farmers in centers of high diversity cannot compete for bulk, but agrobiodiversity and high value niche markets can offer options.”

While the book points out how important agrobiodiversity is for future sustainability, it also recognizes that if it is to meet its potential, national governments will have to get on board. To help them do so, the authors call for new policies “informed by scientific analyses and scholarly understanding”.

De Haan says that current agrobiodiversity and nutrition policies “frequently provide perverse incentives”. Instead, policies could offer an enabling environment for informal drivers and networks that would allow agrobiodiversity to thrive rather than being exclusionary and restrictive.

Examples exist. Some countries have recognized farmer varieties as an official category and permit farmers to exchange and even sell seed. In other countries biodiversity seed fairs and upgraded traditional markets have expanded the exchange of varieties. That sends a clear message that food system transitions can be inclusive of agrobiodiversity. Other countries, including Sri Lanka, Brazil and Peru, have adopted nutrition policies that formally recognize the links between biological diversity and dietary diversity and the importance of both to good nutrition.

Looking forward

The book’s contributors acknowledge that the prevalent focus on yield and the need to feed more and more people in the face of climate change is misguided.

As the editors point out, “nutritional and food security, the provision of ecosystem services, and the protection of cultural values are essential components for achieving sustainable food systems.” And, as the entire volume makes clear, agrobiodiversity underpins them all.