Recently, experts gave us a fresh spark of climate change-related terror. The suggestion was made that the plant species that we turn into chips, coffee and chocolate (i.e. potatoes, coffee cherries and cocoa beans) are in danger of extinction, as a result of the globe's raising temperatures.
Agrobiodiversity – the diversity of species of plants, crops and micro-organisms that we use for food and agriculture – is something we are losing, as more of said species face extinction. This diversity, however, is also the very thing that could help us save various food supplies.
We sat down with Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, to ask more about what agrobiodiversity actually is, and why it's integral to conserving our favourite foods.
So, agrobiodiversity. What exactly is it?
"It's the part of biodiversity (varieties of species thriving within the plant and animal world) that is used for food, fibre and fuel."
The diversity of plant and animal species that we need for food and day-to-day life, then. And why is it important?
"When you reduce agrobiodiversity, you reduce the resilience of farms to different diseases and damage. Over millennia, farmers have developed thousands of different varieties of animal and crop species – and for good reason.
Different varieties are suitable for different climatic conditions – some suit wet soils, others dry; some tolerate extreme heat, others extreme cold."
Can you give us an example?
"Today there is a serious threat to the much loved Cavendish banana [the one you eat daily at 11am, sharp] the most highly sold banana in the world. It's under threat from a new strain of Panama disease." [This is a case in point of what a lack of agrobiodiversity can do.]
What's the problem with it at the moment?
"At the moment, only three out of the 30,000 available global plant species are used to grow the majority of our food, and wheat, maize and rice provide about 50 per cent of our plant-based calories.
"Solutions are needed that combine consideration of producing more nutritious foods from different species, while reducing environmental impacts and conserving our natural resources. Agrobiodiversity can support this." [Essentially, we're putting all of our metaphorical eggs in only a few baskets. If ever evolving strains of disease attack one of our food sources, we have few alternatives to turn to.]
What can we do to make wider agrobiodiversity possible?
"There are simple things people can do. If you cook, favour local and seasonal produce and be curious about new grains, heirloom varieties of plants, different varieties of the same vegetable or fruit and what you can do with them.
"Also, favour products that have protected geographical status. There are sixty five of these in the UK, from Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs to Yorkshire forced rhubarb."
What is the rest of the world doing to help?
"People are becoming increasingly aware of the impacts of their food choices on the environment and on their health, and agrobiodiversity links these two issues. India's National Food Security Act incorporated millet (a cereal crop) into the public distribution system.
"Millet is highly nutritious, and school children eating it for lunch had up to thirty seven per cent higher levels of haemoglobin over students eating white rice. So you can improve diets, while also conserving this traditional crop."
What are experts doing to use agrobiodiversity to conserve food resources?
"We have developed an Agrobiodiversity Index that can help countries and companies to gauge how well they are doing with respect to agrobiodiversity. It will look at the three interconnected issues of diets, farming systems and conservation of genetic resources and assess where actions are working and where they need more support."
What makes the Agrobiodiversity Index unique?
"It looks across consumption, production and conservation. We look at them together to see where you may be causing harm in one area by doing good in another. It's not looking at one factor alone but all three together to achieve what we call a triple win."
The Agrobiodiversity Index will be released next year.