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The Power and Potential of Agrobiodiversity

Protecting and harnessing the earth’s biodiversity is more critical than ever to tackle urgent issues like climate change and hunger.  The GLF Biodiversity Digital Conference: One World – One Health brought together over 5,000 attendees from 120 countries to discuss just that. The Crop Trust convened two sessions that included scientists, genebank managers and biodiversity activists to amplify the discussion around conserving the world’s crop diversity.

In the plenary session, Crop Trust’s Chair of the Executive Board, Sir Peter Crane, spoke about the power and potential of agrobiodiveristy. View the recording or read his speech below.

It is an honor to be asked to speak at this Global Landscapes Forum Community – One World One Health Conference – as the GLF community comes together to think about how to improve the relationship we have with our landscapes and environment. As the current pandemic has taught us we truly are One World in which the health and well-being of all of us is tightly intertwined.

The last century brought significant changes to how we eat and also what we eat. The good news is that today’s food systems can support the nutritional needs of billions globally. Millions have been brought back from the edge of starvation and also lifted out of poverty. Intensive production and sophisticated logistics enable foods that are grown halfway across the planet to arrive affordably to our market shelves. Modern science and technology has helped us to produce more food and move it around efficiently.

Nevertheless many of last century’s most pressing challenges in our food systems persist today. And several new challenges are becoming ever more prominent and increasingly urgent. Globally almost 700 million people go to bed hungry every night and more than 2 billion are malnourished, which has devastating long term effects. At the same time, more than 650 million people are obese and almost 75% of the world’s land surface has been substantially degraded by intensive agriculture

With a population that will approach 9 billion by 2050 – and with more climate stress and higher climate variability on the horizon – the goal of building more resilient and sustainable food systems is more important today than ever before.

The good news is that nature has provided us with a key tool to tackle many of our current challenges: the rich biological systems on which we all depend. The diversity inherent in our wildlife, forests and oceans is critical to resilience of our ecosystems, and today I want to talk briefly about a specific aspect of that diversity – the diversity that underpins the future of our food system that has been created both by nature and by people and the agricultural systems that they have created over thousands of years. Among the results are almost 5,000 types of potato, over a thousand varieties of banana, and hundreds of thousands of varieties of rice.

Over millennia, the interactions of people with the plants that are most important to them has given us an astounding range of options to adapt our crops to changes in climate, while also addressing the urgent need to provide enough healthy food for everyone. Each of myriad varieties of food plants holds precious genetic traits that makes them unique. Their root systems may enable them to withstand flooding or garner more nutrients, they may have the ability to resist drought and flourish despite water scarcity, and some may have a higher nutritional content.

We need to safeguard this diversity if we are to build food systems that can nourish us all sustainably, nutritiously, and forever. Diversity, after all, is life’s hedge against extinction. It is also the vital resource for meeting the challenges that our food systems face, both now and in the future.

Preserving and enabling the use of the diversity of the world’s most important crop species is the mission behind the Crop Trust, an organization that was born with the ambitious target to safeguard all of crop diversity, forever. This is an essential task for the future of our food, and fortunately a task that is feasible – both scientifically and economically. However, as an international community we are falling short. In Target 2.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals the global community pledged to safeguard all of crop and livestock diversity by the end of 2020 – two months from now. And despite much progress in collecting and characterizing crop diversity, and many successes in ensuring that farmers benefit from crop diversity through breeding programs, it is unfortunately true that the job is far from done.

This issue is at the core of today’s conversations – acknowledging that the targets we set a few years ago have not been accomplished – and that if we are to eradicate poverty and hunger by 2030, they need immediate reassessment along with a new joint strategy to increase our efforts and ensure that our goals are achieved. Next year we have two critical opportunities to address these challenges: the Biodiversity COP in May and the Food Systems Summit later in the year. At these two global gatherings we will need to commit to working even harder, and under even more challenging conditions, to achieve the future of food we all want and that future generations deserve.

This conference gathers some of the world’s foremost experts in biodiversity and food systems to think creatively, and reimagine our future together. Including learning good lessons from the past: such as the value of indigenous plants and culture, the advantages of local food systems, the advantages that flow from an understanding of local landscapes and environments, the importance of a diverse, seasonal healthy diet. Diversity is the key and we need to act now so that we can save it and use it. And that will require the commitment of us all.

I invite you today to rediscover together the power and potential of agrobiodiversity and its importance for the future of all of us.

Thank you and be well.

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