FAO’s latest report, titled State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, is the first-ever report of its kind that presents mounting and worrying evidence that the biodiversity that underpins our food systems is disappearing, putting the future of our food, livelihoods, health and environment under severe threat.

“Once lost, biodiversity for food and agriculture – i.e., all the species that support our food systems and sustain the people who grow and/or provide our food – cannot be recovered,” it added.

Biodiversity for food and agriculture is all the plants and animals – wild and domesticated – that provide food, feed, fuel and fibre. It is also the myriad of organisms that support food production through ecosystem services – called associated biodiversity.

This includes all the plants, animals and micro-organisms (such as insects, bats, birds, mangroves, corals, seagrasses, earthworms, soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria) that keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.

The report, prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) under the guidance of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, looked at all these elements. It was based on information provided specifically for this report by 91 countries, and the analysis of the latest global data.

“Biodiversity is critical for safeguarding global food security, underpinning healthy and nutritious diets, improving rural livelihoods, and enhancing the resilience of people and communities. We need to use biodiversity in a sustainable way, so that we can better respond to rising climate change challenges and produce food in a way that doesn’t harm our environment,” said José Graziano da Silva, director general, FAO.

“Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” he added.

The foundation of our food systems is under severe threat
The report pointed to decreasing plant diversity in farmers’ fields, rising numbers of livestock breeds at risk of extinction and increases in the proportion of overfished fish stocks.
Of some 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 contributed substantially to global food output, and only nine accounted for 66 per cent of total crop production.

The world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. Of the 7,745 local (occurring in one country) breeds of livestock reported globally, 26 per cent are at risk of extinction.

Nearly a third of fish stocks are overfished, more than half have reached their sustainable limit.

Information from the 91 reporting countries reveals that wild food species and many species that contribute to ecosystem services that are vital to food and agriculture, including pollinators, soil organisms and natural enemies of pests, are rapidly disappearing.

For example, countries reported that 24 per cent of nearly 4,000 wild food species – mainly plants, fish and mammals – were decreasing in abundance. But the proportion of wild foods in decline was likely to be even greater as the state of more than half of the reported wild food species was unknown.

The largest number of wild food species in decline appear in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Asia-Pacific and Africa. This could be, however, a result of wild food species being more studied and/or reported on in these countries than in others.

Many associated biodiversity species are also under severe threat. These include birds, bats and insects that help control pests and diseases, soil biodiversity, and wild pollinators – such as bees, butterflies, bats and birds.

Forests, rangelands, mangroves, seagrass meadows, coral reefs and wetlands in general – key ecosystems that deliver numerous services essential to food and agriculture and are home to countless species – are also rapidly declining.

Leading causes of biodiversity loss 
The drivers of biodiversity for food and agriculture loss, cited by most reporting countries, are changes in land and water use and management, followed by pollution, overexploitation and overharvesting, climate change, and population growth and urbanisation.

In the case of associated biodiversity, while all regions report habitat alteration and loss as major threats, other key drivers vary across regions. These are overexploitation, hunting and poaching in Africa; deforestation, changes in land use and intensified agriculture in Europe and Central Asia; overexploitation, pests, diseases and invasive species in Latin America and the Caribbean; overexploitation in the Near-East and North Africa, and deforestation in Asia.

Biodiversity-friendly practices are on the rise 
The report highlighted a growing interest in biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches. Eighty per cent of the 91 countries indicate using one or more biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches such as: organic agriculture, integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, sustainable soil management, agroecology, sustainable forest management, agroforestry, diversification practices in aquaculture, ecosystem approach to fisheries and ecosystem restoration.

Conservation efforts, both on-site (e.g. protected areas and on farm management) and off-site (e.g. gene banks, zoos, culture collections and botanic gardens) are also increasing globally, although levels of coverage and protection are often inadequate.

Reversing trends that lead to biodiversity loss – What is needed?
While the rise in biodiversity-friendly practices is encouraging, more needs to be done to stop the loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture.

Most countries have put in place legal, policy and institutional frameworks for the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity, but these are often inadequate or insufficient.

The report called on governments and the international community to do more to strengthen enabling frameworks, create incentives and benefit-sharing measures, promote pro-biodiversity initiatives and address the core drivers of biodiversity loss.

Greater efforts must also be made to improve the state of knowledge of biodiversity for food and agriculture as many information gaps remain, particularly for associated biodiversity species. Many such species have never been identified and described, particularly invertebrates and micro-organisms. Over 99 per cent of bacteria and protist species – and their impact on food and agriculture – remain unknown.

There is a need to improve collaboration among policy-makers, producer organisations, consumers, the private sector and civil-society organisations across the food, agriculture and environment sectors.

Opportunities to develop more markets for biodiversity-friendly products could be explored more.

The report also highlighted the role the general public can play in reducing pressures on biodiversity for food and agriculture.

Consumers may be able to opt for sustainably grown products, buy from farmers’ markets, or boycott foods seen as unsustainable. In several countries, citizen scientists play an important role in monitoring biodiversity for food and agriculture.

Examples: Impacts of biodiversity loss and biodiversity-friendly practices

  • In the Gambia, massive losses of wild foods have forced communities to turn to alternatives, often industrially-produced foods, to supplement their diets
  • In Egypt, rising temperatures will lead to northward shifts in ranges of fish species, with impacts on fishery production
  • Labour shortages, flows of remittances and increasing availability of cheap alternative products on local markets have contributed to local crop abandonment in Nepal
  • In the Amazonian forests of Peru, climatic changes are predicted to lead to savannisation, with negative impacts on wild food supply
  • Californian farmers allow their rice fields to flood in winter instead of burning them after growing season. This provides 1,11,000 hectare of wetlands and open space for 230 bird species, many at risk of extinction. As a result, many species have begun to increase in numbers, and the number of ducks has doubled
  • In France, about 3,00,000 hectare of land are managed using agroecological principles
  • In Kiribati, integrated farming of milkfish, sandfish, sea cucumber and seaweed ensures regular food and income, as despite the changing weather conditions, at least one component of the system is always producing food