Feeding the world

22 December 2009 | News story

Without biodiversity, we would have no food. Since agriculture began some 12,000 years ago, approximately 7,000 plant species and several thousand animal species have been used for human consumption.

Biodiversity is essential to global food security and nutrition and also serves as a safety-net to poor households during times of crisis, providing income opportunities and sustaining agriculture. Natural predators such as wasps and birds help reduce pests that destroy crops, and many of the world's staple crops are pollinated by insects, birds, bats and other animals. A variety of living organisms maintain our soils while genetic diversity helps to provide resistance to disease and pests.

Unfortunately, industrial-scale agriculture has led to a dramatic reduction of genetic diversity within the animal and plant species used for food. Only a handful of species are now used to produce about 90% of all human food. As a result of this homogenization of the food industry, thousands of non-commercial animal breeds and crop varieties have disappeared, along with the valuable genetic diversity they contained.

With the demand for food set to increase dramatically in the next few decades, our agricultural systems need to change without threatening the biodiversity we depend on. IUCN reports that over 4,178 of the 44,838 plant and animal species evaluated are threatened by agriculture or aquaculture. Yet increased food production and biodiversity conservation can go hand-in-hand. Rebuilding global fisheries can include conservation actions such as catch restrictions and protected areas to provide havens for overexploited stocks. Using agricultural practices that build on existing ecological processes such as soil conservation, and biological pest control can reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, thereby decreasing the impacts on nature.

Forms of agriculture that successfully balance productivity, improved livelihoods, and biodiversity conservation have been termed ‘ecoagriculture’. The term may be new but the concept is not. For centuries, rural communities have found ways to integrate their food production with ecosystem stewardship.