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Regaining Momentum for Agrobiodiversity Conservation at the UN Food Systems Summit

Stefan Schmitz | Crop Trust Executive Director

The upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) could mark a turning point for how we solve some of our most pressing global crises—if we can rise to the occasion.

Six years ago, the international community gathered at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York, where leaders from all UN member states—193 countries—made a historic pledge to achieve 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Among them, the second of the SDGs was a pledge to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” This goal was as ambitious as it is vital to the health and well-being of not only current generations but our children and grandchildren as well.

A key to achieving it is enshrined in target SDG 2.5, which aims to “maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species” by 2020, including through conservation in genebanks.

Protecting the biodiversity found within agricultural systems is as critical to sustaining and celebrating the cultural heritage of the past 10 millennia of agriculture as it is to ensuring the long-term future sustainability of our food systems.

Unfortunately, work to meet the 2020 deadline for SDG 2.5 was significantly impacted by the global spread of COVID-19. Development assistance funds were redirected towards immediate COVID-19 relief efforts. And advocacy for the conservation of agrobiodiversity fell on ears that were increasingly focused on the pandemic. 

Amid such challenges, I see the UNFSS as an ideal opportunity to regain some of the momentum we lost during the early stages of the pandemic and a chance to realign global efforts to strengthen the conservation and use of our agrobiodiversity. 

The world is in the midst of multiple, intersecting crises that we cannot afford to ignore—climate change and biodiversity loss being among the most urgent.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change painted an ominous picture in its latest climate report of a rapidly warming world that will only hasten the degradation of our agricultural ecosystems while requiring that they adapt as fast as possible.

In this context, safeguarding our wild and domesticated plants is more important than ever.

My hope is that the UNFSS will be a chance to put agrobiodiversity at the center of food policy actions. The Crop Trust has been strongly involved in this effort and is working closely with partners and governments. By conserving plant genetic resources, we can simultaneously protect nature, advance food security and take concerted climate action.

At the same time, I hope we take this opportunity to engage a broader range of partners in this important work, including Indigenous and civil society groups and the private sector. Although governments have important responsibilities, they are not solely responsible for conserving crop diversity.  Many private actors benefit directly from the availability of diverse plant genetic resources, such as the coffee industry, and need to pay their way.

They can do this in a number of ways, including by participating in sustainable investment tools that support existing efforts to conserve and use crop diversity within our food systems, and by spearheading actions plans of their own.

With the UNFSS Pre-Summit behind us, I am confident that there is a shared understanding among stakeholders of the importance of agrobiodiversity for food security. To build on this progress, the UNFSS must ensure the support and engagement of high and middle-income countries, through targeted allocation of official development assistance (ODA) funds, as well as in low-income countries, through the allocation of funding in national budgets towards better food systems, including the conservation of agrobiodiversity.

Commitments that result from the Summit must be tangible, scalable, and accompanied by concrete action plans, funding commitments and timelines.

Finally, there must be a balance between the vital short-term commitments to address  pressing food crises and efforts to achieve long-term sustainability, including through the conservation of crop diversity. 

Indeed, it is today’s seeds that may hold the solutions to tomorrow’s food security crises. 

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