Research in society

Agrobiodiversity: goin’ bananas for people and planet

You should eat a kilo of Cavendish bananas a day, if you’d like to fulfil your recommended intake of vitamin A. Or, you could eat one To’o banana. Too bad the Cavendish variety accounts for 47% of the worldwide production and 99% of the commercial export sale to developed countries; we seem destined to stuff ourselves with remarkable quantities of the yellow fruit.

The same story of selective breeding and mass production of bananas is shared by most other crops we consume nowadays, and estimates show that only some 30 of the approximately 7000 edible plant species are actually feeding the world. For example, in India alone, there are more than a thousand varieties of mango with different properties, yet just a handful are commonly grown. Similarly, taking the example of cereals, the vast majority of the total land cultivated with grains is only farmed with wheat, maize and rice

Are you starting to see some issues in the way we utilise biological resources to produce food? Well, let’s dig in further.

This line of enquiry laid the foundation for a recent research effort by the organization Bioversity International. Numerous authors compiled knowledge at the forefront of the agricultural biodiversity field in a truly interdisciplinary approach, profiling the most important aspects and open questions existing within the discussion on agrobiodiversity. This process resulted in the recent publication of a report titled “Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems: Scientific Foundations for an Agrobiodiversity Index”, launched at an homonymous side event at CFS 44 in Rome.

Agricultural biodiversity is the variety and variability of animal, plants and micro-organisms used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture. It therefore includes a wide range of species, spanning from crops and their wild relatives, to trees, livestock, fish, pollinators, soil bacteria or even entire landscapes. Its tight link to sustainable food systems, human health, and ecosystems stewardship are thus clear. As well as its applied implications for seed systems management, and conservation and use of genetic resources.

Highlighting the need to mainstream agrobiodiversity certainly comes timely when you consider the modern conventional agricultural system which is the single most important sector for freshwater use and driver of biodiversity loss, and which alone accounts for some 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions. But diversifying could not only be beneficial for the planet: diverse foods, as in the case of the banana presented earlier, can help to supplement diets with key nutrients. As Stineke Oenema of the UN standing committee on Nutrition has put it at the launch, “I asked children why agriculture is important for nutrition, they gave me the simplest but most comprehensive answer: we need to replenish what we consume in our bodies – and the more diverse is what we eat, the better we replenish”.

An important EU-funded process that is evolving in parallel to this research endeavour is the development of an Agrobiodiversity Index, which simply put is a tool to help measure and manage agrobiodiversity in a geographic area across diets, production and genetic resources. The index, currently at the prototype stage, is envisioned to be instrumental in guiding public and private sector actors in monitoring, making decisions and investing for the long-term sustainability of the food system.

“The index is a handy way to measure agrobiodiversity, you can compare it with energy indexes we have for a refrigerator or a house” states Willem Olthof of the European Commission, also at the launch, “and as consumers decide which products to buy based on the energy score, countries, donors or companies would have better agrobiodiversity information to decide on their investments”. As Willem speaks, he holds a Romanesco in his hand, a typical roman artichoke variety gifted him by the moderator of the event. He concludes saying that the index would “suggest if things are going right or wrong” in terms of agrobiodiversity.

“The report and index have been hailed by the media, with flattering headlines appearing internationally” explained Richard China of Bioversity later. Voices from the policy sphere such as that of Pierfrancesco Sacco and Mario Arriola, permanent representatives of respectively Italy and Mexico to the Rome-based agencies, also recognised the value of this piece of work in guiding policies for food and agriculture. As cherry on top, Juan Gonzalez-Valero of Syngenta expressed how “putting all the topics in one book and proposing the use of an index, constitutes a breakthrough to bring to the attention of all stakeholders”, including private sector actors.

If this has intrigued you, dive in, the report is out and provides an exciting read, surely thought-provoking to a very diverse public. Personally, I’m thinking we should maybe diversify from the Cavendish once in a while, and really go bananas for the sake of planetary and human health.


This blogpost covers the CFS44 side event “Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems: Scientific Foundations for an Agrobiodiversity Index”

Blogpost by Daniele Crimella, #CFS44 Social Reporter – daniele.crimella(at)
Photo Credit: Michael Porter/Flickr

This post is part of the live coverage during the 44th Session of the Committee on World Food Security, , a social media project supported by GFAR. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.

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