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Five facts about food and biodiversity you need to know on #BiodiversityDay

© ??????? ????? / ????? ?????? Credit: World Bank

The upsurge in warnings on shrinking biodiversity did not concern me very much as long as they were about dying insects or obscure fish species. But I now know that bees and insects and even tiny organisms that we cannot see, all play a vital role in producing the food that we eat. As an avid eater, that has my full attention.  

According to a recent UN report, many species that are indirectly involved in food production, such as birds that eat crop pests and mangrove trees that help to purify water, are less abundant than in the past. Over 33% of the fish stocks are estimated to be overfished.  Bee colony losses are on the rise and 17% of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats and birds are threatened with extinction. What is more, once lost, the species that are critical to our food systems cannot be recovered.  

Clearly, the foundations of our food systems are being undermined and this is unsustainable. It will be even more so as we increase food production to feed a growing population – nearly 10 billion by 2050. 

As we celebrate the International Day for Biological Diversity, let me highlight five facts that I discovered about food and biodiversity that showcase the potential for change and may interest you.

1. ‘Doomsday seed bank’ aims to conserve crop diversity for the future

Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, some 1,100 kilometers from the North Pole, lies the Global Seed Vault. The CGIAR – the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network, along with the Gates Foundation, other corporations and the Government of Norway have invested millions of dollars in building this bank.

Also called the ‘doomsday seed bank’, it is the largest collection of crops and has over a million different varieties of seeds from the entire world. Its aim is to conserve crop diversity for the future. Seeds are specially wrapped to exclude moisture. The vault marked its 10th anniversary last year. Safeguarding such a huge range of seeds means scientists will have the best chance of developing nutritious and climate-resilient crops for the future generations. 

2. Eat-a-Rainbow initiative teaches children the benefits of eating nutritious food

Samoa has the perfect climatic conditions for growing fruits and vegetables. Yet, most food is imported into the country. Today, Samoa has a high prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as blood pressure and diabetes due to poor diets. The WHO estimates that 70% of deaths in Samoa is caused by non-communicable diseases. 

The World Bank’s Samoa Agriculture Competitiveness Enhancement Project is working with Samoan farmers to improve the quality and quantity of locally produced food, while at the same time collaborating with the Ministry of Health to encourage kids to eat a greater variety of food. The Eat a Rainbow initiative works with schools across Samoa to teach children the benefits of eating nutritious, local produce of all the colors of the rainbow and how a varied diet promotes healthy living.

3. Agricultural diversity has a positive impact on the nutritional status of children in the household

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (the FAO) estimates that there are roughly a quarter million plant varieties available for agriculture, but less than 3 percent of these are in use today. More than half of the world’s food energy comes from a limited number of varieties of three “mega-crops”: rice, wheat, and maize. 

Many smallholder farmers engage in monocropping which renders food production to be less resilient. Analysis in Nigeria showed that when small farm households were encouraged to produce a more diverse set of foods (for example, fruits and vegetables, legumes, milk, eggs, and fish) and were given nutrition awareness trainings, the result was greater diversity in diets, higher intake of micronutrients and a more positive impact on the nutritional status of children in the household.   

It highlights the need for a combination of interventions – improve nutrition literacy; remove land use restrictions and price policy biases toward cereal crops; promote homestead gardens, nutrient dense crops, fish farming, and livestock.  

4. Foods richest in micro nutrients such as fruits, vegetables and seeds depend on pollination

When we think of pollinators we often think of bees. But did you know butterflies, birds, moths and beetles and even bats are pollinators too? Foods richest in micro nutrients such as fruits, vegetables and seeds depend on pollination.  In fact, according to the FAO, 75% of all crops depend, in part, on pollination. 

Since bees and other pollinating insects play a vital role in producing the food that we eat, a London Council is growing a seven-mile long “bee corridor” of wildflowers

5. Alternative farming systems to preserve water, forests and land

I am also intrigued by the potential of hydroponics and aquaponics: While the former refers to growing vegetables in nutrient-rich water, the latter combines growing fish and vegetables in water. Both are soil-free methods of cultivating crops and require: 

•    75-95% less water;
•    No arable land and soil; 
•    Minimal use of space; and 
•    Is portable and uses solar power

Can they change the future of food? I sure hope so – for biodiversity’s sake. According to the World Resources Report, “between 1962 and 2010 alone, almost 500 million hectares of forests and woody savannas were cleared for agriculture”, leading directly to today’s worrisome biodiversity crisis.  


Nandita Roy

Communication Officer, World Bank’s India office

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