Can local and sustainable agriculture save biodiversity?

By Marco Maria Cerbo, Chargé d’Affaires a.i. at the Permanent Delegation of Italy to the international organisations in Paris, and Rebecca Graziosi, development co-operation intern

sustainable-agriculture.jpgDuring his speech at the Nobel Banquet, the newly-awarded laureate in Economic Sciences, William D. Nordhaus, declared: “Over the last half-century, the full implications of climate change and its impacts have been illuminated by the intensive research of scientists in different fields. These studies depict an increasingly dire picture of our future under uncontrolled climate change. […] Now, it is up to those who represent us, our elected leaders, to act responsibly to implement durable and effective solutions.”

Data can hardly deny this statement and our planet is now facing an unprecedented emergency. Globally, there is widely-cited evidence that the extinction rate of animal and plant species, as high as 1 000 times the background rate, is increasing rapidly as a result of human activities. In particular, biodiversity in farmland is diminishing, with effects on all of the ecosystem services that are essential to agriculture, including pest control, pollination and climate regulation. Pollution, climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources and changes in land use are the main drivers of biodiversity loss and are clearly related to human activities. Biodiversity is one of the most important legacies we can leave to future generations and its anthropogenic destruction requires urgent action by policy makers and a re-thinking of economic activities.

The OECD report, “Biodiversity: Finance and the Economic and Business Case for Action” prepared for the G7 Environment Minister’s Meeting in May 2019, provides key data on the decline of common species. For instance, since 1970, 60% of the global vertebrate population was lost and more than 40% of insect species are diminishing rapidly. Between 2010 and 2015, natural forests lost 6.5 million hectares per year and between 1970 and 2015, natural wetlands declined by 35%. Seventy-two percent of threatened terrestrial, marine and freshwater species are overexploited and 62% are affected by agricultural activities. The report shows that the cost of inaction on biodiversity decline could reach USD 125-140 trillion per year, however the social impacts might be even worse.

How is biodiversity loss affecting agriculture?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the number of people affected by hunger worldwide has reached 815 million. At the same time, the traditional cultivation practices of many rural communities throughout the world is endangered by conflict and ecological disasters. Agriculture is the main economic sector in many developing countries and the subsistence for nearly half of the world’s population depends directly on ecosystem resources, including 2.5 billion people who depend on agriculture and livestock, according to UN data. At the same time, crop genetic diversity is dipping rapidly. The loss of agro-diversity is also the consequence of the replacement of local crops with non-native crops or improved varieties.  The data are clear: over 90% of crop varieties have been lost and 75% of the food produced in the world derives from only 12 plant and 5 animal species.

Reversing biodiversity loss starts locally

The Italian Development Co-operation has focused on the issues of biodiversity and crop adaptation at the level of local producers. Two examples of this approach are in Central America and Ethiopia. The Regional Network for the Support to Small Coffee Producers’ Associations Programme (“CaféyCaffè”) was started in 2017 in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Its aim is to enhance the living conditions of rural coffee producers, improve the ecological sustainability of their production and tackle their socio-economic vulnerability through climate change adaptation strategies, the creation of synergies with the private sector involved in Italian Co-operation activities, and the participation of women in the agricultural production system. Significant results were achieved during phase one of the project, which benefited around 3 500 producers. Main achievements included dissemination of good practices, agricultural diversification, increase in income and technical skills at the community level, and strengthened capacity for agricultural planning and land-use development. Phase two reinforced the results of the first phase, benefitting 760 producers and enhancing women’s production in Guatemala.

In Oromia, one of the largest (and least-developed) regions of Ethiopia, the Agricultural Value Chains project re-introduced the cultivation of durum wheat, less vulnerable to disease than soft wheat, in order to supply national industries and meet the growing domestic demand for pasta, without relying on importations from abroad. The results are impressive: the increase of production in the Bale Mountains zone increased from 500 tonnes in 2011-12 to 50 000 tonnes in 2015-16. Moreover, the project has introduced small farmer co-operatives to technical innovations and assisted them with acquiring the skills to manage direct commercial relations with industries, involving a wide range of private and public actors.

These projects have helped support the production of smallholder farmers, encouraging non-intensive and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. They also ensure a greater variety of crops, foster the development and sustainability of rural livelihoods and, importantly, protect biodiversity. For example, global production of pasta results in five times lower co2 emissions than rice production.

The connection between degradation and loss of biodiversity, climate change, food insecurity and competition for water and energy shows the necessity to respond in a multidimensional and local way to these challenges. The Ethiopian Productive Safety Net Programme is a good example of such a response. Launched in 2005 to reduce “food insecurity vulnerability by providing economic opportunities and building resilience to crises, through cash transfers, public works, and nutritional feeding programmes”[1], it has lifted approximately 1.3 million people out from food insecurity, rehabilitated 9 million hectares of land and improved access to clean water.

We can no longer ignore the biodiversity crisis. Cristiana Pașca-Palmer, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity recently said in an interview: “The loss of biodiversity is a silent killer: it’s different from climate change, where people feel the impact in everyday life. With biodiversity, it is not so clear but by the time you feel what is happening, it may be too late.” Steps in the right direction are being taken by governments, and international co-operation is a tool they have to act. In this regard, the annual Conference of the Parties (COP25) currently taking place in Madrid, is an opportunity for countries to continue working multilaterally to tackle the loss of biodiversity and climate change, and to promote sustainable practices to protect the ecosystem and the food sector.