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Genetic diversity-the pillar to food security and agricultural productivity

Farmers 1 File Photo

Sat, 21 Jan 2017 Source: Hinneh, Samuel

Population expansion coupled with urbanisation of fertile agricultural lands together with modernisation in every aspect of human daily activities which create biodiversity are getting eroded in direct and indirect ways. Deforestation, land degradation, coastal development as well as environmental stress collectively lead to large scale extinction of plant species, more importantly, agricultural food crops, which drives food security and agricultural production.

Genetic diversity can be described as the key pillar of biodiversity, and of course diversity within species as well as between species and ecosystem, which is echoed in Article 2 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). But the challenge is as a result of modern crop varieties, particularly the types developed primarily for high yielding potential under well-endowed production conditions--such varieties are often unsuitable for low income farmers who are found in marginal production environments and face high variable stress conditions.

It is worthy to note that traditional varieties have also been found to exhibit higher stability, thus adaptation over time, in situation where agriculture output is low, and of course under marginal environment, therefore their cultivation may contribute to farm level resilience in the face of food production shocks. This is very true for countries including Ethiopia, and Ghana, among others, where agro climatic conditions become a problem, the pace to technology progress is slow, market institutions are become poorly developed, and poor infrastructure. The aim of conservation genetics seeks to maintain genetic diversity at many levels as well as to provide important tools to ensure population monitoring and assessment which can be applied for conservation planning.

Climate change and genetic diversit The most profound and direct impacts of climate change over previous decade and the next few decades will surely be on agriculture and food security. The effects of climate change will also depend on current production conditions. Food production systems rely on highly selected cultivars under better endowed environments but it might be increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts such as pest and disease. If there is a decrease in food production levels, the result will be huge pressure to cultivate crops under marginal lands or perhaps even go in for unsustainable measures which over time degrade lands and resources and eventually impact biodiversity in a negative way on agricultural lands. Sadly, this is a common occurrence in developing countries.

CBD COP 13

The CBD Conference of Parties (COP13) meeting held in Mexico, from 4-17 December 2016 created the platform for experts to find a common ground to address problems associated with biodiversity across all sectors of the economy. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations also presented some interesting reports at the side-lines of the event. It is a very crucial findings, which many countries globally and particularly Africa needs to take a closer look at and find ways to inculcate some of the recommendations, if not all into national plans for sustainable development. The report, State of the World's Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, outlines some important initiatives, including the use of sustainable practices in agricultural sector and farming diversification, encouraging a comprehensive farming management that promotes efficient water and energy use as well as preserves soil biodiversity.

Well, these are some of the measure among others in the report, if adhered to will lead to achieve biodiversity conservation and sustainable use in the agricultural sector. Given the magnitude of issue, an interview with Irene Hoffmann, the FAO Secretary of Intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was done during the conference in Cancun, Mexico.

"It looks not only at genetic resources for food security like plant varieties or species, and animal breeds, but also issues associated with biodiversity, soil micros, as well as pollinators-the little things we don't really see but are extremely important for making agriculture happen," she says.

Regional consultations globally were done with experts, adding, "People that were involved in the preparation of national reports found the exercise extremely useful because it brought them to think about the invisible services that agriculture depends upon, but also to have contact with their colleagues from the other ministries."

"To do this as a cross sectoral exercise, you need to talk to people at the ministries of livestock, fisheries, forestry, environment, food security and lots of others. So we provided them with the opportunity to meet people that they have never met before, and therefore the actions will come from both ends, where countries start to work more together across ministries," Hoffmann notes.

Even though this is the preliminary findings of the report, it is the hope of many involved in the field of genetic resources and food security that many countries would be higher political recognition of ecosystem services.

"The CBD requested that there should be global plan of action based on the report, but we don't know how this will look like, but it depends on how countries request for FAO technical support at national level," she mentions.

Mainstreaming agriculture and biodiversity To ensure there is an integration of agriculture and biodiversity in the face of climate change, she believes that there is the need for multi sectoral approach, and "it is not only about agriculture and biodiversity, you need to include health, education, planning, and infrastructure."

According to her, this is because at different levels, there are farmers who produce certain products and cannot reach markets due to bad infrastructure, and lack of services either inputs market or product market and extension services.

"Some countries have made achievements, the millennium development goals on improving primary school education but in some cases, these were numbers not quality.

"There are a lot of issues of men migrating and leaving women at home, leading to feminisation of agriculture, and unless you work politically and culturally on gender equality, and give women the same access to services such as land tenure, bank credit, and so on, this can't work.

"You need to have integrated health and nutrition programmes, so that children can grow up properly, especially children without parents, and old people in the villages who do not have the labour force to do agriculture.

"You cannot only address one, you need to have integrated vision of how you want the role of development to function and the African ministers have made the commitment in the Malabo Declaration to improve investment in agriculture and there are some improvements, but in many countries we are still far from those commitment. So this calls for political will and the recognition of rural development needs to be there," she states.

Getting to farmers at the grassroots level Farmers in developing countries, particularly in Africa, find it difficult to get right information on plant varieties, planting techniques, among others. Agricultural extension services therefore is envisage to address the problem, however, extension services gradually is declining. There are cases where, the numbers are not adequate, coupled with financial constraints and logistical challenges, making it very difficult to reach smallholder farmers in remote areas, where their services are very much required.

To get to farmers only works through coordinated education and communication efforts, Hoffmann says.

"In many countries extension services have been seriously cut but you can either do the bottom up approach and have provisions in the legal setup that allows farmers to come together to create cooperatives to help each other.

"The FAO is promoting farmer field schools where farmers come together and explain to each other their practices by making trials to see how it works to understand reasons why certain things works and otherwise," she points out.

"This has grown very much, we started with integrated pest management approaches and now we have farmer field schools on integrated agroforest pastoral system, and even farmer business schools.

"There are many aspects where this bottom up initiative can help and from the central point of view you can start all kinds of communication campaigns because everybody now has cell phones.

"Many people in the villages can be reached through the development of messages through radio, on aspects of social change, gender issues, farming to reach broad audience.

"Agricultural extension services play vital role in helping farmers stay updated on the current trends of farming methods, and more so, as climate change and urbanisation as well as aging farming population, efforts to channel financial resources, logistics must become a priority for governments to ensure biodiversity and food security," Hoffman emphasises.

CBD COP 13 decisions

The world would need to put in place strategic policies, programmes, as well as projects backed by effective implementation and monitoring and evaluation mechanism to ensure that people around the world have adequate food with abundant reserve to avoid any food crisis. The COP 13 Cancun Declaration presented some activities that can help to increase agricultural production against the back drop of increasing global population and climate change.

The Cancun Declaration intends to promote sustainable agriculture for food security, human nutrition, health, economic development and environmental protection; and the adoption of a holistic integrated view and assessment of ecosystems and the interlinkages between agriculture and biodiversity. Delegates also called for the conservation and cultivation of native varieties, as well as farmers’ landraces; locally adapted breeds and underutilized species, including those threatened by production intensification; and the implementation of the Global Plans of Action on Animal, Plant and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, to meet global food demands in a sustainable manner.

Conference benefits of integrating biodiversity

Alvaro Toledo Chavarri, Technical Officer, Benefit-sharing Fund Operations and Policy at the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at FAO also says that, within the agricultural sector, in many ministries of agriculture around the world including Africa, sometimes or most often whenever biodiversity is being discussed, many feel that the subject matter is very far away from their core business.

"But actually there are a number of efforts that are being undertaken by the agricultural sector to use biodiversity in a strategic manner for the future and relates to the conservation, sustainable use of crops genetic diversity within crops essential for human well-being and food security," he mentions.

According to him, most countries in Africa cultivate some major crops which are few and found globally.

"This means that these crops have travelled through centuries through centres of origin where farming started for those crops but now have moved to many farmers around the world who are growing those crops.

"The importance of these crops is we cultivate these few crops, so there is not that much diversity of crops that we are using but within these crops there is a huge amount of genetic diversity attached to them.

"So it means that we are talking about thousands of varieties of rice being used around the world by farmers and therefore FAO since early 1980s have been stressing that without conserving and using the genetic diversity of these important crops, it is going to be impossible to reach global food security," Chavarri notes.

"It is extremely important for countries to cooperate to be able to continue feeding their population and ensure researchers can find crops that can adapt to future needs with regard to climate change, and changes in the needs related to nutritional value of the crops," he emphasises.

Invisible services

Chavarri says there are a number of services that are essential for food production that are many times not seen as essential but they are actually playing important roles for the future of food production. In the area of genetic diversity, there are a lot of services that farmers do to conserve in a dynamic manner, he states.

"The diversification by the use of crops or different varieties within farming system allows to increase resilience of farming system and minimise the impact of many diseases or pests that could harm production.

"The use of diversity provides ecological service which is reduction of pests and diseases. Ecological services provided by the use of diversity such as the use of diversity to cover crops to get much more production of waterlog in the soil and increased activity of recycling of nutrients which leads to reduced needs of certain inputs used by farmers," Chavarri points out.

Sequence of genetic resources

He believes that countries actually need to share genetic diversity to test and adapt and use this diversity to battle problems associated with agriculture and food security.

"In the area of genetic diversity, we always say each diversity has a value and that value increases if the information that you can relate to genetic diversity is well structured--sample of materials you get from gene banks, information on where it was collected, what are the features of that, evaluation of the materials for diseases, etc. for research purposes.

"There are new tools that are being used right now, new biotechnology tools, new information technologies and information sharing technologies to create genetic sequence of the sample and share information that is generated. There is an aspect which is clearly an addition of value to the genetic materials that countries need to improve food security and agricultural development," he adds.

Columnist: Hinneh, Samuel