With nations gathered in Montreal for the Convention on Biological Diversity COP-15, Food Ethics Council member Patrick Mulvany reflects on what needs to be done to address the existential crisis of biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity, the variety of all life on Earth, is disappearing rapidly – mainly due to human activities. A recent UN report states that one million species are under threat of extinction. Yet, as the OECD estimates, more than US$500 billion of public funds per year are used to support activities that are potentially harmful to biodiversity. We need to redirect these funds, and more, to ensure that there is a significant reversal of biodiversity loss within the next few years if our grandchildren are to inherit a life on Earth, as we know it. We need to start right now, especially in the most biodiversity-depleted areas. These are rural, peri-urban and coastal areas where people live and work on the land and in fisheries. The sub-set of biodiversity in these areas is called ‘Agricultural Biodiversity’. It underpins all human life on Earth through providing the basis of our food, feed, fibre, medicines and other useful products – and it shapes the biosphere, which provides clean air and water and a liveable planet.  

Agricultural biodiversity has been nurtured over millennia by peasants, Indigenous Peoples, gardeners, pastoralists, forest-dwellers, fishers and other small-scale food providers. They have selected, collectively and in harmony with nature, around 7,000 species of plants and some 40 animal species for their food. They have developed these on their farms into more than 8,000 livestock breeds and many millions of plant varieties and farmers’ seeds, often grown in diverse mixtures and resilient populations of varieties, suited to local preferences and diverse ecosystems all around the world.  

Agricultural biodiversity also includes all those species, above and below the ground and in waters, which have co-evolved in agroecosystems to support the production of crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries. These support speciesinclude pollinators, soil organisms, fungi, pasture and forage species, aquatic organisms and many others. All of this agricultural biodiversity is, however, increasingly under threat with the spread and intensity of industrial agriculture and fisheries, as well as climate change, conflict, and pervasive poverty.  

Since the colonial expansion of the plantation economy and up to the present day, the spread of industrial agriculture and its genetically homogeneous monocultures across the globe is pushing smaller-scale Indigenous Peoples’ and peasants’ biodiverse production systems to infertile margins.  As a result, agricultural biodiversity is diminishing – now to the point of crisis.  

Compared with the diversity and resilience of smaller-scale biodiverse production systems, which feed the majority of the world’s population and are highly adaptable to threats such as global warming, industrial agriculture now focuses on relatively few varieties and breeds of about 100 crop species and just five types of livestock. These produce commodities for an increasingly uniform industrial food system in which more than half the calories provided come from only three crop species – wheat, maize and rice. This system is controlled by few corporations, which also threaten agricultural biodiversity through marketing their biodiversity-reducing farm inputs. The ever-increasing use of agrochemical biocides, which annihilate pollinators, soil micro-organisms, beneficial fungi and more, is one source of the mounting threat. The spread of patented, genetically modified and gene edited plants and animals, designed to prop up biodiversity-eroding monocultures, is another.

The global community must act now to reverse these losses, which not only devastate nature but also threaten our food supplies. While the threats might seem intractable in industrialised economies, the good news is that there exists a tried and tested food system based on biodiverse agroecology, developed in the framework of food sovereignty by biodiversity-enhancing small-scale food providers, which incorporates high levels of agricultural biodiversity. 

Biodiverse agroecology – a science, practice and social movement – is localised, economically-regenerating, climate-cooling, and produces nutrient-dense foods. It addresses many of the direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss, which are exacerbated by homogeneous monocultures and globalised industrial food systems, while enhancing heterogeneous agricultural biodiversity and localised food webs.

Agroecology, which works with nature, is vital for restoring agricultural biodiversity and enhancing the resilience of our food systems.

A rapid and systemic transformation away from biodiversity-eroding industrialised agriculture towards biodiverse agroecology would have an immensely positive impact on both nature and our food system, making it fairer, healthier and more resilient. There is increasing evidence of the public benefit that biodiverse agroecological systems would bring, but is there the political will to face up to the sectional interests who want to keep their power over the increasingly vulnerable industrial food system?

Globally, it’s the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), founded in 1992, that sets the rules on biodiversity conservation. It’s currently focused on preserving ‘wild’ biodiversity in Protected Areas, which have a history of excluding the peoples who live there and who have managed these areas sustainably. Some governments are pressing to expand Protected Areas to 30% of territories by 2030. But prioritising conservation of ‘wild’ biodiversity in Protected Areas, whilst ignoring the bigger picture of the dramatic decline in agricultural biodiversity on the doorsteps of nearly 8 billion people, would be a folly.

The CBD struggles, however, to get governments to focus on implementing Decisions on sustaining agricultural biodiversity that the same governments have negotiated over for three decades. The long-delayed round of negotiations taking place at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) this week is set to further weaken these agricultural biodiversity Decisions. Negotiators are prone to bend to the pressures of affluent countries and corporate lobbies, regularly side-lining agreements to enforceable actions that would address the greatest biodiversity challenge. This challenge is reversing agricultural biodiversity losses in the 70% of territories where most people live. The Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity need to step up to the plate and ‘Replant Agricultural Biodiversity in the CBD’.  

A systemic shift towards biodiverse agroecological systems, which enhance agricultural biodiversity, would address all three pillars of the CBD: conservation; sustainable use; and equity. Prioritising biodiverse agroecology and agricultural biodiversity in the new CBD biodiversity plan for managing nature through to 2030 – the so-called ‘post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF)’ – would provide an unparalleled opportunity to address urgent biodiversity losses at genetic, species and ecosystem levels. This shift would also provide a multiplicity of benefits for the common good, from reduced greenhouse gas emissions and climate adaptation to food security, sustainable livelihoods and human rights, thereby contributing to a whole swathe of Sustainable Development Goals.   

But will decision-makers be prepared to face down global cartels, corporate agribusiness, retail multiples and sectional interests who prioritise expanding the current industrialised food system, which they control?  

Now is the time for food citizens, across local and global scales, to press for biodiverse agroecology as the basis of their food systems, which by working with nature and respecting collective rights can reverse the losses of agricultural biodiversity and secure a viable and fair future for all peoples, animals and the biosphere.