Ann Tutwiler: Bringing Biodiversity into the Green Revolution Equation

Ann Tutwiler

Our guest author, M. Ann Tutwiler, is Director General of Bioversity International. In this guest post, she discusses how private-public partnerships can contribute to better agricultural biodiversity, a topic she will discuss further as a keynote speaker at the 82nd Annual Conference of the International Fertilizer Industry Association in Sydney, Australia on 26-28 May 2014.

It is an article of faith in the agriculture community that we need to increase food supplies by 60% by 2050—and that the challenge before us is as compelling as the challenge we faced in 1962, at the start of the Green Revolution. It is also understood that we can’t simply repeat the arithmetic formulas that gave us the first Green Revolution—simply increasing yields and producing more food and more calories is no longer sufficient.  We now have to solve a quadratic equation: it matters both how we produce more food and where we produce it as well as how we market and consume it—all under changing climatic conditions.

The first variable is: how? We know we must produce more food while sustainably using natural resources such as land and water. But we rarely talk about the importance of sustainable use of our most important natural resource:  genetic diversity.  Although there are over 7,000 known edible plant species, currently 50% of the world’s calories come from just three crops—rice, wheat and maize. These happen to be the crops that have benefited from the most attention from both public and private research organizations, with well-developed improved seed varieties, fertilizer compounds, and agronomic systems. During the Green Revolution, agricultural biodiversity was seen as an important source of genetic material that could provide important traits, such as high yields or pest and disease resistance.  But the role of agricultural biodiversity in farming systems was often overlooked—and was even sometimes seen as part of the problem.

However, in recent years we’ve been finding out that (over the long term) more diverse ecosystems, with more species or more genetic diversity within species, can often have higher overall productivity than systems based on fewer varieties.  They can also be associated with greater stability of yield—higher-diversity plots have been shown to be up to 70% more stable  than monocultures. Genetic diversity can also reduce risk of crop failure in high stress environments.

The second variable, then, is: where? As the majority of the expected population increase will take place in the developing countries, we must produce more food in these regions. Most of the world’s remaining agricultural biodiversity is found in these developing countries, maintained largely by smallholder farmers: they are the custodians of biodiversity.

For most of these farmers, diversification is a risk management strategy, offering inbuilt increased resistance to pests and diseases, climate variability and extreme weather phenomena. Crops that can withstand the rigors of climate change—such as sorghum, millet and amaranth (among many others)—require more attention from both public and private research organizations. For many of these crops, there are no improved seed varieties, and there are no tried and true agronomic practices. These so-called “crops of the future” and more broadly the potential benefits of agricultural biodiversity could benefit from more research in order to help farmers manage their production risks or how to efficiently and effectively integrate these understandings into the practices of modern agriculture.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) will be essential in delivering on this goal.  In 2013, public funds dedicated to agricultural research and coordinated through the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (of which Bioversity International is a member)­—topped $1 billion. Although nearly one-third of this total is invested in rice, wheat and maize, increasingly the international agriculture research for development community is also investing in climate change, nutrition, dryland cereals, livestock and farming systems research—and biodiversity. But global private sector research dwarfs public research investment by a factor of 11 to one, and there are many ways in which private and public sector research can work in tandem to deliver on shared goals.

PPPs combine the respective and complementary strengths of both sectors, achieving benefits that neither can produce on their own. These partnerships can produce investments and introduce the technology needed to make progress towards sustainable food security and market gains: they lead to higher competitiveness and better (or even new) market access, reduce the costs and boost the relevance of research, and ensure that key stakeholders are involved.

Together with the private sector, Bioversity is putting diversity to work to improve smallholder livelihoods, produce food sustainably and reduce risks from pests, diseases, and unstable weather and markets.

Finding a market for neglected crops

One great example of our work on markets with the private sector is the IFAD-Neglected and Underutilized Species Project. Bioversity International has been working with IFAD for over a decade to tackle the market failures that prevent farmers from bringing diversified products to market in Bolivia, Peru and India. The IFAD-NUS project has reached out to over 80 partners to help enhance the sustainable use and management of underutilized species such as quinoa, in order to unlock their potential value for income generation and nutrition. After two successful phases, a third is currently underway and the results speak for themselves: the production of Andean grains in target communities increased by 140% in Bolivia after both phases. After the project developed the first-ever quality standards for Andean grains, marketing opportunities increased by 81% in Bolivia and by 64% in Peru. In India, Bioversity International and its partners worked with smallholders to improve the cultivation and use of small millets. As a result, Indian small millet growers increased their yields by 70% and their income by 30%.

Biodiversity for risk mitigation

We need to learn to integrate bio-diversification into modern agricultural systems as a first-order response to the threats of pests, disease and climate change.  Thus far, limited research has been devoted to understanding the role that agricultural biodiversity can play in reducing farmers’ risks or how it can be used in modern farming systems.  An excellent example of our work on risk reduction for farmers is cocoa. Demand for cocoa products has never been higher, and 90% of the global supply of cocoa comes from 5 to 6 million smallholder farmers across tropical Africa, Asia and Latin America. However, many lack the resources to improve yields or prevent loss from extreme weather or pests and diseases; the latter alone is responsible for up to a 40% loss in annual production. The Global Cacao Genetic Resources Network, a network coordinated by Bioversity International, is working with public and private partners – including Mars, one of the world’s leading chocolate manufacturers- to contribute to a more sustainable cacao economy. Mars and Bioversity International are also working together on the Cocoa of Excellence initiative, providing opportunities for farmers to link directly to specialist chocolate markets, which not only secures their livelihoods but also perpetuates the on-farm maintenance of a myriad of varieties.

To effectively tackle the challenge of feeding nine billion people while sustainably using our natural resources—including agricultural biodiversity—the public and private sector need to address agricultural bio-diversification to increase productivity, reduce risk, and tackle unstable weather and markets. Given the challenges and opportunities we face to increase food security and to do so sustainably, it will be vital that public-private partnerships continue to find ways to collaborate and to ensure that these learnings are put into practice.