Agricultural biodiversity loss is one of the greatest challenge of our time

Published by Marie-Amélie Brun on

28th of July, 2016

Over the last few years we have been experiencing great agrobiodiversity loss. Agrobiodiversity is the agricultural biodiversity meaning plants, vegetables, fruits… According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), we have lost 3/4 of the genetic diversity of plants during the 20th century and today human diet is based on 12 plant species and 14 animal species.
This loss is now said to be endangering the food security of the world and groups of people try to maintain rare and non-commercialised seeds. It is the initiative of Seed Savers in Ireland to do this.

Seed Savers Ireland’s work is to preserve seeds in order to keep Irish heritage intact and insure a bright future for the next generations. Today they have about 600 non-commercially available varieties of seed in their seed bank.

Seed banks are a system presents worldwide to protect and conserve seeds from each countries. They were put in place in case of natural or man made-disaster that would leave a variety of plant extinct. In this case the seed bank would be able to send back the seeds collected preserving a variety of species.
After the wars that destroyed seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan, the UN decided with the help of scientists and the cooperation of the Norwegian Government to create a global seed vault collecting seeds from all over the planet, it is located in Svalbart and regroups more than 860,000 different plant samples. This initiative has been described by Cary Fowler, one of the scientist working in the project, as the only real cooperation between nations around the world : “every countries in the world have gotten together to do something that’s both long term, sustainable and positive. I can’t think of anything else that’s happened in my lifetime that way”.

But wars are not the only reason for agrobiodiversity loss. Modern agriculture seems to be putting food security at risk all over the world.

Over the last few decades agriculture has become way more controlled and now seeds and plants have to correspond to specific characteristics in order to be grown. The “Common catalogues of varieties of agricultural plant species and of vegetable species” list the varieties allowed in the EU and their characteristics. This is an harmonisation of the seeds and plants available and it is made to protect farmers and consumers, however this technique may result in the removal of one of the main traits of farming because it tends to favour commercial seeds.
For centuries, farmers all over the world have selected seeds from their crops to grow them during the next year. It is only possible to do so now in the EU with 21 plants, because some seeds are patented by companies and not farmers. Companies were able to become the owner of these products. With this change it becomes more complicated for farmers to be independent, as they have to pay royalties each year to the companies.

This loss of agrobiodiversity has greater consequences than we can imagine. Monocultures are used because they ensure good productivity and profits. But this technique follows a different pattern from the natural one because it separates species. In the natural process, plants grow in a natural polyculture, meaning that they all grow in the same place, and thanks to their diversity they can protect each other from diseases.
French wheat producer Chritian Dalmasso uses polyculture to avoid having to use pesticides. He explains that because each of type wheat he cultivates as its own characteristic there is no need for pesticide, plants protect each other.

Doctor Jack Harlan described diversity in crops as the “genetic resource stand[ing] between us and catastrophes starvation on a scale we cannot imagine”.

Bees are also affected by the loss of agrobiodiversity. Those little workers play a very important role for our food security. According to the National Institute of Agricultural Research 35% of our food is dependent on their work. But the appearance of monocultures crops and the disappearance of natural fields endangers bees which have difficulties finding food and we recorded a decrease in the level of population within bee colonies.

The loss of agrobiodiversity which doesn’t have a visible impact yet on our life is one of the major challenge of our time, a “mass extinction” as said by Cary Fowler that needs our attention and concern.

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Marie-Amélie Brun

Marie-Amélie is a contributor to the Green News. She is currently completing a Masters in International Cooperation and Multilingual Communication at the University Grenoble Alpes.