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A bandwagon in the mainstream

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science and Programs

Mainstreaming has been at full flood of late. The 13th Conference of the Parties (COP13) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is going on right now in Cancun, Mexico, and the theme of the whole two weeks is “mainstreaming biodiversity for well-being.”

The Cancun Declaration, adopted on 3 December at the High-Level Segment of the COP, certainly reflects the realization that conservation of biodiversity is too important to be left to ministries of the environment alone. Our friends from CGIAR are there in force, mainstreaming away like mad on behalf of agriculture, for example launching an Agrobiodiversity Index that will help “link decisions across human nutrition, environmental protection, agricultural production, biodiversity conservation and economic development.”

And before that there was COP22 of the Climate Change Conference, in Marrakech, Morocco. There, one of the objectives was mainstreaming agriculture into the climate change agenda. Again, CGIAR was represented. For example, ICARDA – many of whose staff, including part of the genetic resources section, are based in Morocco – hosted a couple of side events highlighting their work on breeding crops for dry areas. And the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) worked the halls and corridors, keeping an eagle eye on the rising waters. As they explained in their blog post after the conference, there’s still some way to go in integrating agriculture fully into these discussions, but the economic case for investment in agriculture in a world of climate change is pretty clear, and progress is being made.

So, there’s a lot of mainstreaming going on, if only no more than dipping a toe in the water: of biodiversity into nutrition and health and climate change; of agriculture into climate change and biodiversity and poverty alleviation; of gender into everything. Which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It makes total sense to think about biodiversity when planning interventions to deal with climate change, malnutrition or poverty, say, so as to achieve positive results in both areas at the same time.

It still worries me, though. And not just because mainstreaming is one of those things for which I wish there was another name. Like bladderwort and petrichor and scaling up, it’s an ugly term for a good thing. No, there’s a better reason why this bit of unlovely jargon worries me. What I fear is that it may in fact perpetuate the very compartmentalization it is trying to counteract. Here is thing A, it seems to say, which is totally different from thing B, but both are worth having, so why not do them together. Whereas in fact it is A to Z that we should be trying to do, mixed up in all sorts of different, complicated ways.

But the term is here to stay, to be sure, though who knows, we may have reached peak mainstreaming. Whatever: my philosophical reservations are certainly not going to stop me doing my bit to make sure genebanks stay afloat as they navigate turbulent waters. Because whether it’s climate change adaptation or poverty alleviation or better nutrition, crop diversity can play a part – a big part – but only if it’s safely tucked away in genebanks and available to all, as well as growing in farmers’ fields. And the need for conservation in genebanks is all too often forgotten as the mainstream swirls by.

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