Issues Magazine

Biodiversity and Food Security: Nourishing the Planet and its People

By Denis Blight and Cathy Reade

Can we have our biodiversity and eat it too? International and Australian specialists discussed this pivotal question at the 2010 annual conference of the Crawford Fund, one of the very few events during the International Year of Biodiversity focusing on biodiversity conservation and world food security.

There’s little doubt about the importance of two separate challenges: how to feed a hungry world nutritiously, and how to better understand and sustain biodiversity.

Dr Steve Hopper, the Australian who heads Kew Gardens in London – arguably the world’s most famous garden – told the conference that the global ambition of sustainable healthy living for all was challenged by accelerating change, entrenched patterns of land and water use, biodiversity loss, rising consumption and population growth. There was, he said, little hope of continuing the “green revolution” if it remained focused on a few mainstream crops without new land and water ethics, as well as new economic and political systems that valued social and natural capital as much as financial assets. He illustrated his thesis with captivating accounts of global plant diversity that helps the planet to breathe, scientific discoveries, and strategies that will help humans live with and sustainably use biodiversity.

Dr Cristian Samper is the Director of the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. He served as the Chairman of the scientific advisory body of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and was one of the leaders of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. He told the conference that biodiversity was the basis for agriculture and a sustainable future. Of the millions of species – some described, many more lost – only a few hundred species of plants and animals have been domesticated, and while biological diversity remains vast and variable in space and time it is being homogenised.

Yet biodiversity is vital to livelihoods. Agriculture and trade are having major impacts on natural ecosystems through transformation into production systems, habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution and species invasion.

New tools tare giving insights into the origins of agriculture also offer opportunities for using and changing the genetic diversity of crops and races. It is time, Samper said, to bring together knowledge from biodiversity science and agricultural research through a whole-of-system approach to ensure that these opportunities are seized.

Professor Hugh Possingham, an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow, member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, Director of the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis Centre and Director of The Ecology Centre at the University of Queensland, provoked much discussion by challenging any comfortable assertion that we could “have our biodiversity and eat it too” unless we can integrate biodiversity conservation areas with agricultural lands in ways that create win–win situations and rekindle a global affection for conservation in its own right. Even then, he argued, there would have to be trade-offs.

Megan Clark, the Chief Executive of CSIRO, argued that the issues go well beyond just using biodiversity as a new source for new foods or trying to understand the impact of climate change in terms of new threats of pests and diseases.

Dr Emile Frison (see p.16), director of Bioversity International, made a compelling case that agricultural biodiversity offers an alternative approach to global malnutrition and poor health in a world where roughly two billion people suffer malnutrition associated with a lack of micronutrients and vitamins. He illustrated the point by describing a successful effort in Kenya to revitalise interest in indigenous leafy vegetables that were more nutritious, for example, than the introduced cabbages that now dominates diets at their expense.

In science, as in politics, everything is related to everything else. Pests and diseases entering Australia are a threat to Australia’s biodiversity as well as to agriculture, as the conference was told by Mrs Lois Ransom, Australia’s Chief Plant Protection Officer.

T.J. Higgins from CSIRO argued that a case can be made, on the grounds of conserving biodiversity, for using different genetic tools to incorporate traits that will reduce the need for pesticide spraying (see p.18). But there were limits to genetic manipulation. Nitrogen fixation, for example, involves a complex set of genes that would be difficult to transfer without further extensive research and development, and legumes in farming systems already provide ways to add nitrogen to soils.

In the developing world, the balance between development and the environment is even more delicate given the enormous demands of a growing population for food and fibre, a balance highlighted by Keng-Yeang Lum, chief scientist for South-East and East Asia at development and information organisation CABI. This balance can only be achieved through policy and regulatory frameworks formed by biosecurity and biosafety combined.

In Africa, the diverse and genetically unique ruminant livestock and wildlife species are being lost at an alarmingly rapid rate, according to Okeyo Mwai of the International Livestock Research Institute (see p.34). By smartly conserving those at risk, genetic attributes for world food security can be saved.

A profound revolution in marine and freshwater food – from fishing to aquaculture – is exploiting and altering the biodiversity on which they are based. Fishing reduces genetic diversity through selective removal of target individuals. Meryl Williams, Chair of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Commission, explained that aquaculture focuses on the production of a few preferred strains and on creating new strains, thus reducing and increasing diversity.

Microorganisms, the first forms of life on Earth, have evolved into the most diverse species and continue to nurture and sustain the environment, plants and animals on which human society depends, a point stressed by Lindsay Sly of the University of Queensland (see p.36). Yet the preservation of authentically stable microbial and cell cultures, access to information on cultures and characteristics, and identification of new species, which are all vital services of microbial resource centres, are relatively neglected, including in Australia.

Just how difficult the policy challenge will be for tropical forestry biodiversity loss was illustrated by Luca Tacconi, Director of the Environmental Management and Development Program at the Crawford School of Economics and Government. He pointed to the need for governments to commit to changes in existing policies that drive deforestation and forest degradation, adjusted policies and property management rights, clearer lines of authority for every level of governance, addressing issues of corruption, and stronger law enforcement.

One issue underpinning many presentations and the extended question and answer session was the lack of capacity to record and describe biodiversity, in particular the shortage of trained taxonomists who can do the work. In all this there are elements of paradox and contradiction. A number of questions and comments urged that the contribution to world food security of modern broad-acre agriculture, developed over years of careful research and application, not be discounted.

The need for urgent national attention to Australia’s germ plasm collections was also raised at the conference by Australian and international speakers. Perhaps that is a good focus for Australia’s decision-makers to take at the close of the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity.

All speakers’ PowerPoint presentations from Biodiversity and World Food Security: Nourishing the Planet and its People – the 2010 annual conference of the Crawford Fund – are now available online. The full proceedings will be posted at .