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Why I dislike the International Day for Biological Diversity

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

30 May 2019

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science

I don’t like the International Day for Biological Diversity much.

I mean, I’m fine with the concept. It would of course be better if there were no need to regularly point out how important biodiversity is, and how bad it is that plants and animals are going extinct and whole ecosystems becoming degraded. But until that glorious day dawns, I guess it’s not a bad idea to remind ourselves once a year.

No, my problem is finding something to say that is different to what everyone else is saying. It can be a bit of a struggle to think of something that someone else has not said before to highlight the importance of biodiversity in our lives.

There is one thing, however, that rarely gets mentioned on May 22, and that is that it is not just wild plants and animals that are going extinct, and natural ecosystems being degraded, but also crop varieties and livestock breeds. So one of my stock moves in the past has been to point out that agricultural diversity also deserves a place at the celebrations. But, as it turns out, this year’s theme is none other than the fact that biodiversity is the foundation of our health and food, and a key driver in making our food system more sustainable. So that’s out. Maybe they heard me.

I thought I might still be ok this year, though, because I could cleverly link to the landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which only came out a few weeks ago. Nobody will think of that, surely. And there’s lots of interesting data in the report about how the loss of biodiversity in agriculture is undermining the resilience of food systems, and what can be done about it. The IPBES has not always been so explicit in making the case for the importance of biodiversity in agriculture. The report even draws attention to the importance of crop wild relatives in developing new, climate-resilient varieties.

But the new director general of Bioversity International links the IPBES report to May 22 in his very first blog post.

Ok, so maybe I could link to FAO’s State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture instead. That came out way back in February, I told myself: nobody remembers that now. I could remind people that the report found that, out of 6,000 plants used as food, fewer than 200 make major contributions to food production, and just nine account for two thirds of food production, and why it’s such a bad idea to put all our eggs in one basket in that way. Simran Sethi had made the connection between the FAO and IPBES reports in the Washington Post, sure. But nobody will think of linking the somewhat “niche” FAO report to the big day. Wrong. Ghanaians did, in a big celebration in Accra.

I know. Genebanks. Nobody ever talks about genebanks on May 22, that’s a given. Even when people discuss the importance of agricultural biodiversity, more often than not they skip the role of genebanks. It takes a lot of words to explain how seeds in a fridge in a research station contribute to resilient farming systems, and attention spans are short these days. You have to explain how farmers are in constant need of new crop diversity to keep up with changes in climate, markets and tastes; how breeders use diversity to produce better varieties, higher yielding, more able to cope with stresses, more nutritious, more tasty; how the diversity they need could come from anywhere in the world, and often from multiple places; how this diversity has been lost from farmers’ field in many cases; but that it often survives in genebanks; how genebanks make it readily available according to agreed rules; but how all that takes resources that genebanks are often short of. That’s my angle. Good old genebanks, so important, but so complicated to explain, and so often taken for granted.

Wrong again. Here is the UN Environment Programme contrasting the tens of thousands of rice varieties conserved in genebanks with the dozen or so on supermarket shelves. Diversification of markets requires access to that conserved diversity. Such a pity: I could have pointed to the recent agreement signed by the Crop Trust and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to safeguard forever the more than 100,000 or so rice varieties in IRRI’s genebank. And there is the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), using May 22 to tell the world about a project going back to the farmers who originally donated their maize varieties to the CIMMYT genebank to see whether they still grew any of them, or wanted some of them back. They did, on both counts.

Even genebanks got some attention on May 22 this year. With so much coverage of biodiversity, crop diversity and genebanks, the world is perhaps finally – if somewhat late in the day  – getting the message about why these are important. That’s a reason for optimism. It might mean that we won’t need an International Day for Biological Diversity in the future to remind us. And if that day comes, it’ll be fine with me.

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