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Linking Biodiversity Targets to Food System Sustainability: The Agrobiodiversity Index

This post is written by Juan Lucas Restrepo, Director General, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT.

A report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which came out last year, forecasts that, based on current trends, up to a million species may be wiped out in the next few years. 

But what does the sixth era of mass extinction have to do with the food we eat? After all, we only feed ourselves from a tiny fraction of the planet’s biodiversity. Well, the truth is that a decline in biodiversity generally is linked to a decline in the biodiversity we need to produce our food and farm our lands. Even though at an individual consumer level the diversity of offerings in markets has never seemed higher, with exotic superfoods (teff or goji berries anyone?) regularly appearing on our shelves, biodiversity for food and agriculture is decreasing globally (Khoury et al., 2014). 

Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that of the 6,000 different species used as food, nine contribute to 66% of total food production today. This challenges our food system’s sustainability as well as the health of our people and the planet. Less biodiversity in food and agriculture means more simplified production systems, which face higher risks of losses due to climate change, pests and diseases. It also means more simplified, homogenous and unbalanced human diets, which increases risks of malnutrition and non-communicable diseases, one of the main causes of ill-health and premature death today.

The long-term sustainability of our food systems relies on agrobiodiversity — the diversity of crops and their wild relatives, trees, animals, microbes and other species that contribute to agricultural production. This diversity, which results from interactions among people and the environment over thousands of years, is a key component of healthy diverse diets. It is also a valuable component in the global push towards circular — more efficient, resilient and less wasteful — farming systems. The genetic resources that are one aspect of agrobiodiversity provide an invaluable pool of traits to withstand harsh new climate conditions, respond to consumer preferences and improve nutrition. 

The Convention on Biological Diversity’s new draft Global Biodiversity Framework, which will be finalized and adopted in October at a biodiversity summit in Kunming, China, includes SMART targets to steer society to ‘live in harmony with nature’, including targets for food sustainability. They cover reduction of biocides and fertilizers, increases in genetic resources conserved and targets for useful relatives of crops found in the wild. While the targets are certainly welcome, targets alone are not sufficient. What we need are mechanisms and tools that can help us to translate targets into commitments and actions that support transitions towards food system sustainability. The Agrobiodiversity Index is one such tool. 

The Agrobiodiversity Index is an innovative tool that helps food system actors measure the status of agrobiodiversity and identify policies and business levers to increase the use and conservation of agrobiodiversity. The Agrobiodiversity Index was designed by Bioversity international (now the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT) following a consultative process involving over 400 stakeholders over two years. The first step was to compile the scientific evidence of the centrality of agrobiodiversity to sustainable food systems (Bioversity International, 2017). Equipped with a set of scientifically valid indicators, we continued rounds of dialogue with potential users: What indicators can countries and companies use and act upon to diversify and improve our food systems? We also spoke to other index initiatives: How to ensure that the Agrobiodiversity Index was complementing work elsewhere and would fill an identified need? 

The result of these conversations, testing, and research into suitable proxies for usable indicators was published in a Methodology Report (Bioversity International, 2018). The Agrobiodiversity Index brings together data about the agrobiodiversity that people produce, sell and eat, from farm to fork, and the diversity of genetic resources that underpin them, to give insights into food system functioning. It is innovative in three main ways:

  1. It measures biodiversity across three domains not usually connected: nutrition, agriculture and genetic resources. 
  2. It employs exciting new technologies, such as text mining a country’s policies and strategies on agriculture, nutrition, and genetic resource conservation, to gauge the level of commitment to biodiversity-based solutions 
  3. It is action oriented, aiming to identify good practices that governments, companies, and investors are already implementing to use and safeguard agrobiodiversity as well as areas for improvement. 

The Agrobiodiversity Index uses globally available spatial datasets and national policy documents to assess performance at the country level. The countries are provided with an overall Agrobiodiversity Index score between 0 and 100 that indicates their progress in using and safeguarding agrobiodiversity to create sustainable food systems. They can use this score to benchmark performance against other users and against their own aspirational or previous scores. 

The Index measures agrobiodiversity status and progress. Status assesses the current state of agrobiodiversity in markets and consumption, in agricultural production, and in genetic resource management, looking at diversity in terms of species, varieties, functions, soil biodiversity, and landscape complexity. Progress assesses the extent to which commitments and actions of different food system actors support sustainable use and conservation of agrobiodiversity for healthy diets, sustainable agriculture, and future options. Users are provided with a breakdown of scores per pillar, per measurement category, per indicator and individual measurement area to allow for deeper interpretation of results. 

2019 saw the first run of the Agrobiodiversity Index across ten very different countries – from Australia to South Africa, via India, China, and Ethiopia (Bioversity International, 2019). The 2019 report shows that within the sample of ten countries analyzed, higher income countries, such as Australia, Italy and the USA, tend to do better in terms of current status score, but emerging economies, such as India, Kenya and South Africa, are performing better in terms of future commitments and actions. Will these lower and middle-income countries become the future gatekeepers for agrobiodiversity? While this remains to be seen, certainly they are better positioned to take advantage of the benefit of agrobiodiversity to address today’s global challenges, including malnutrition and climate change. With its action focus, the Agrobiodiversity Index can be used to plan interventions towards food system sustainability.

Learning from the application of the Agrobiodiversity Index to countries has also allowed us to gain further insights on how to improve the tool’s methodology. Feedback received on the report will be used to upgrade the tool and the country profiles and to expand the application of the Index to additional countries in 2020. Improving the Index methods has always been our driving principle since we started to develop the tool back in 2017. By taking a design approach, we want to make sure that the tool always integrates the latest information, datasets, and technologies to improve the analysis.

In 2020 the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture are planning to focus the next Agrobiodiversity Index report on the Mediterranean Diet, a diet proven to benefit human health and the environment. We will be measuring the current state of play of agrobiodiversity mainstreaming to assess food system sustainability for ten Mediterranean countries. This analysis will allow us to identify where the Mediterranean diet is persisting and where it is being abandoned, and the practices and policies that support its persistence. 

Biodiversity will be in the spotlight in 2020 as the new global goals are drafted. It is important that we make the most of this moment to highlight and leverage the contribution of biodiversity to sustainable and healthy diets.


This blog is based on research carried out by scientists from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT working closely with partners around the world.

The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT brings a dynamic, new and integrative approach to agricultural research for development, addressing the food system as a whole. It delivers research-based solutions that harness agricultural biodiversity and sustainably transform food systems to improve people’s lives in a climate crisis.

The Alliance is part of CGIAR, the world’s largest agricultural research and innovation partnership for a food-secure future.

References

Bioversity International. (2017). Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems: Scientific Foundations for and Agrobiodiversity Index. Rome, Italy: Bioversity International.

Bioversity International. (2018). The Agrobiodiversity Index: Methodology Report v.1.0. Rome, Italy.

Bioversity International. (2019). Agrobiodiversity Index Report: Risk and Resilience. (A. Bailey, Ed.). Rome, Italy: Bioversity International.

Khoury, C. K., Bjorkman, A. D., Dempewolf, H., Ramirez-Villegas, J., Guarino, L., Jarvis, A., … Struik, P. C. (2014). Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(11), 4001–4006. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1313490111

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