We share our planet with a multitude of other living creatures—plants, animals, insects and microorganisms. Derived from the words “biological diversity,” biodiversity is defined formally as the “variety of life on Earth at all its levels.” This diversity is essential to supporting our food system. Specifically, improving our agricultural biodiversity can help us draw on plant species and their genetic variabilities in order to feed the world sustainably while preserving our natural resources.
The basics: What is biodiversity?
As emphasized by Gurdev S. Khush, a former World Food Prize Laureate, biodiversity is the “basis of agriculture and our food system” and allows us to feed the human population while improving our quality of life. As such, biodiversity is important for maintaining farm ecosystems, also known as agricultural ecosystems and agroecosystems. A quick recap on ecosystems: An ecosystem is an environmental area in which “[all] organisms, as well as weather and landscapes, work together to form a bubble of life.” An ecosystem can comprise many different environments, be it a small pond, a large expanse of prairie, or a working agricultural farm. Within an agroecosystem, everything from the type of dirt to the bacteria species living in the dirt to the multitude of insects, animals and different crops atop the soil plays an important role in sustaining and maintaining a farm’s function and balance.
The biodiversity of different farm ecosystems is important in maintaining the farm itself, but it also allows us to enjoy a wide variety of outputs. For example, a cattle farm’s ecosystem may include the growing of different varieties of corn (used to feed animals as well as for human consumption) and the practice of grass-grazing cattle, the byproducts of which can be used to fertilize crops and help sustain humans in the form of products like milk, meat and leather goods.
Why is biodiversity important to sustainable agriculture and food systems?
In the past, the diversity of plants and animals allowed our ancestors to be able to hunt and gather a wide variety of foods and resources. The evolution of the domestication of different plants and animals (e.g. grains and livestock) that has happened over thousands of years has supported us in developing communities across various parts of the globe and exponentially increasing the size and health of humanity. However, even with the benefits of domestication, more biodiversity is needed, because it allows us to respond to new agricultural challenges and environmental pressures in our world.
With the increasing impacts of climate change and the expected explosion of the world’s population in the next 30 years, it is important to maintain the biodiversity of our agricultural ecosystems in order to fight gaps in the food-supply chain and promote environmental sustainability.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that “only about 30 crops provide 95 percent of human food energy needs.” In fact, 60 percent of our food needs are met through four crops, specifically monocultures (the growing of one variety of crop) of potato, maize, rice and wheat. Due to their growing capabilities and nutritional values, these crops were specifically selected to be major contributors to our foods system; however, their lack of genetic variabilities could be catastrophic if faced with persistent pests or prolonged harsh climate conditions. Many monocultured crops also have wild relatives and newer cultivars which can increase drought-resistance, produce higher yields, provide energy solutions and even increase pest-resistance—but those relatives have not been adequately tapped. One example of the detrimental effects of monoculture was seen in banana crops that have been continuously devasted by a fungus causing the condition Fusarium wilt. Continual efforts to combat Fusarium wilt have included diversifying their genetics and controlling their growth environments.
What are food producers and farmers doing to support agricultural biodiversity?
Although traditional agricultural practices have long been the greatest contributor to the loss of biodiversity, farmers and producers have since explored more sustainable practices to support agroecosystems. We have previously discussed some of these practices, including cover crops, no-till farming, conservation tillage, and regenerative agriculture—which all seek less-harsh alternatives to decrease the demand for chemical inputs. These sustainability approaches both increase biodiversity and improve soil health and water quality on farms that enact them.
In addition, farmers and food producers recognize the importance of preserving the genetic variability of different species of plants, animals, insects and microbes and are seeking new ways to improve this biodiversity on the genetic level. For example, utilizing grazing animals or maintaining insect or predator diversity can decrease pests and undesirable wildlife in grassland and pasture-crop systems. Another farming method involves increasing the spatial closeness of different types of plants, which can allow healthy crop pollination by pollinators, leading to increased genetic variability among crops.
As we continue to strive to preserve the biodiversity of our world, it is important to remember the impact that agricultural biodiversity has on our food system. By increasing the diversity of crops and agricultural ecosystems now, we will be better able to maintain the delicate balance of our food production system, continue producing the food we love, and ensure that future generations will also be able to have access to a wide variety of food types. The impact and importance of agroecosystems and agricultural biodiversity is very quickly becoming the next big discussion in the food production world.
This article contains contributions from Tamika Sims, PhD, and Lily Yang, PhD Postdoctoral Research Associate at Virginia Tech in the Department of Food Science and Technology.