The biodiversity of domesticated biota and food-supplying ecosystems holds unparalleled importance for breeding and crop and livestock improvement. This importance has fueled decades-long emphasis and debate on germplasm collections and in situ genetic resources. But the range of interest in agrobiodiversity is also expanding.

Now a new article in the journal Nature Plants by Karl Zimmerer, Pennsylvania State University, and Stef de Haan, International Center for Tropical Agriculture, is focused on these expanding horizons. Their article is entitled “Agrobiodiversity and a Sustainable Food Future.” It crystallizes the four-part framework that is emerging from recent advances and interest. The framework is highly relevant for the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas (RTB), which is one of the main CGIAR Research Programs investing in the broader sustainability implications of agrobiodiversity.

Agricultural landscape in Vietnam. Photo S.DeHaan/CIAT

In their Nature Plants article Zimmerer and de Haan draw on new contributions in research, development, policy, academic, and activist institutions worldwide. The article reflects the ‘Agrobiodiversity in the 21st Century‘ forum held last October in Frankfurt at the Institute for Advanced Studies with support from the Strungmann Foundation.

35 international scientists, scholars, and practitioners, including several from the RTB community, participated. Agenda-setting came from the advisory committee of Connie Almekinders, Stephen Brush, Timothy Johns, and Yves Vigoroux, in addition to de Haan and Zimmerer. The Foundation is providing vital support that includes the resulting book (Agrobiodiversity in the 21st Century, to be published in early 2018 by the MIT Press).

Food, Nutrition, and Health
This focus is central to the expanding horizons of agrobiodiversity. The new UN “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” calls for agrobiodiversity to contribute to food security, nutrition. and health. This use links agrobiodiversity to food systems, producer and consumer choices, human nutrition and economic development. This is essential for root, tuber and banana crops as food preferences and uses are main drivers of on-farm conservation. Furthermore, evidence is highlighting the complementary nature of bred varieties and landraces in rural and urban food systems alike.

Genetic Resources, Ecology, and Evolution
Expanding emphasis on the resilience and sustainability of food biodiversity is related to cultural, agroecological, and evolutionary interactions. There is a suite of new research among agroecologists, biogeographers, culture-and-plant researchers, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists. This expansion of concept- and information-based approaches is linking molecular techniques to agroecological experimentation, cultural practices and histories, innovative monitoring, and “big data” methods. It is essential for RTB’s spearheading a robust monitoring framework, e.g. the Chirapaq Ñan Initiative of the International Potato Center in Latin America, which can up- and out-scale across crops and centers of diversity.

Farmers harvest native potato varieties in Peru. Photo S.DeHaan/CIAT

Governance Challenges and Opportunities
Governance mechanisms for agrobiodiversity have been broadened to involve multiple international arrangements, though with incomplete results to-date. Still community, grassroots, and civil society organizations are experimenting with innovative institutions and actions. Many regions rely on robust informal seed networks of food plant biodiversity whose strengths also require scientific and policy support. Not only RTB genetic resources need to be governed, but also the associated OMICS information.

Global Change and Social-Ecological Interactions
Individuals and societies increasingly confront the challenges of global climate, demography, land use intensification and planning, and the large-scale integration of food systems and global markets, as well as urbanization and peri-urban expansion. These interactions also crosscut each of the above areas of focus. Social-ecological interactions amid global change is actively triggering the loss as well as the enrichment and conservation of the biodiversity of agriculture and food.

Potato landraces in Peru. Photo S.DeHaan/CIAT

Rice varieties on display at a market in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo S.DeHaan/CIAT

The findings in Zimmerer and de Haan’s new article demonstrate the need for integrative approaches within and among each of these four areas of expanding horizons. Integration also underscores the complex roles of smallholder and indigenous people. These key stakeholders continue to comprise a major segment of the world’s population that is most culturally aware and knowledgeable about agrobiodiversity while being disproportionately food-insecure and impoverished.

Their emerging framework promises to have practical usefulness for the program’s phase II work on genetic diversity. More broadly it also reflects the RTB community, which is among the most active and innovative interdisciplinary groups researching the multiple dimensions of agrobiodiversity use and evolution in a globalized world.

This article was contributed by Karl S. Zimmerer (Pennsylvania State University) and Stef de Haan (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)