Nearly five months before the UN General Assembly met in mid-September, a hundred experts and policy makers with varied backgrounds from 24 countries took part in an International Consultation at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, on 18 and 19 April 2005. They looked how agricultural biodiversity could help the world to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and in particular the goal of freedom from hunger and poverty. The UN meetings have just ended, but the challenges remain.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in his message to the Chennai Consultation that in the past, the community food system ensured a wide range of food crops rich in protein, iron, micronutrients and vitamins, but commercial agriculture brought in changes and there was a need to revisit the earlier traditions.

 •  Women and biodiversity
 •  Restoring endangered bioreserves

Why connect biodiversity to hunger? Agricultural biodiversity is the plant wealth that is used for agriculture. It can be weeds growing in between crops or it could be the numerous strains of rice that exist. The Chennai Consultation underlined that for over 12,000 years, agricultural biodiversity played a pivotal role in sustaining and strengthening food, nutrition, health and livelihood security. But even as crop productivity has risen with modern scientific methods, hundreds of millions of children, women and men tragically go to bed under-nourished. Ironically, most of them are in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa that are rich in agricultural biodiversity.

Endemic hunger from protein-energy malnutrition, hidden hunger from deficiencies of iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A and other micronutrients in the diet, and transient hunger from drought, floods, and other natural disasters are the realities of the day. But scientists and biodiversity experts at the consultation said that hunger can be tackled with an integrated strategy for the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of agricultural biodiversity.

Well known agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan warned at the consultation that a mere thirty of the 7000 species were today contributing to 95 per cent of the world’s dietary needs with three of them -- rice, wheat and corn (maize) -- getting much of the attention while the medicinal plants getting lost which was dangerous for disease management.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said this as much in his message to the Consultation. He pointed out that in the past, the community food system ensured a wide range of food crops rich in protein, iron, micronutrients and vitamins, but commercial agriculture brought in changes and there was a need to revisit the earlier traditions.

Nature throws up enough miracles for us to learn from. Even during the titanic tsunami of December 26, 2004, land races of rice were found in coastal Tamilnadu that could survive seawater inundation. Many life-saving crops like tubers and legumes were cultivated in the past. We urgently need to rekindle such dying wisdom and save vanishing crops that can help lessen the impact of natural or man-made calamities. It is well known that women possess rich traditional knowledge. Therefore, women are crucial to conservation and sustainable management of agricultural biodiversity needs to be strengthened and revitalized.

Knowledge of the seed and the cycles of farming is usually with women. File pic: CARE India.

Tropical fruits, beta-carotene rich sweet potato and other vegetable crops can help to fight Vitamin-A deficiency in children. Agricultural biodiversity provides uncommon opportunities for developing decentralized and locale-specific community food security systems involving field gene banks, seed banks and grain banks. This can be developed and managed by local women and men. Emile Frison, Director General of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy, said that if there were diverse crops, it could also help in reducing pesticide use.

That is not all. Agricultural biodiversity also offers the crucial raw material for improving the quality of crops, livestock and fish, which means more food, said experts at Chennai. Tapping into agricultural biodiversity will also offer opportunities, especially to the landless poor, for entrepreneurial initiatives. It will end up generating employment and income from a range of value-added foods, medicines, nutraceuticals, bio-fuel and other products. This is crucial as lack of money is a major cause of hunger.

But the "flagship role" played by agricultural biodiversity in overcoming hunger in an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable manner is yet to be widely realized, according to the Chennai consultation. More significantly, it is not integrated with national and global strategies for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Better nutrition is also vital for fighting pandemics like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, since a drug-based approach alone will not lead to the desired results. Paradoxically, the health foods of tomorrow may be mostly the under-utilized crops of today, said experts at the consultation.

Agricultural biodiversity and cultural diversity also have feedback relationships. Local farming systems provide the feedstock for poems, songs, dance and drama. Community-led food security systems based on the conservation, cultivation and consumption of local foods thus help to preserve cultural and ethnic diversity in crop and culinary preferences. Thus, conserving agricultural biodiversity confers multiple benefits — ecological, economic, nutritional and cultural.

Aruna Kumara Dissanayake, the Sri Lankan Minister for Agriculture, Livestock, Land and Irrigation pointed out that his country had decided to use biodiversity for food security. His ministry had realized that the centralized agriculture development paradigm was a problem and was there moving in a direction where farmer organizations were replacing nodal offices of the ministry at the grassroots.

The Chennai consultation resulted in 'The Platform for Action' which called for a number of steps including the following:

  1. Incorporate agricultural biodiversity conservation and sustainable use in national development.
  2. Enhance use of agricultural biodiversity and its associated traditional knowledge for promoting off farm employment and income generation in harmony with traditional rights, cultural identity, ecosystem integrity and gender equity.
  3. Strengthen the multilateral system of exchange provisions of the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to expand its coverage of plant species important to food security and income generation.
  4. Ensure fair and equitable benefit sharing of commercial gains accrued from accessed genetic resources.
  5. Work towards a similar treaty on multilateral exchange of animal genetic resources relevant to food and agriculture.
  6. Recognise and reward the invaluable contributions of rural and indigenous people, particularly women, in the conservation and enhancement of agricultural biodiversity.
  7. Confer social prestige and economic benefit to its primary conservers.
  8. Promote local markets and facilitate access to international markets for the products of agricultural biodiversity, especially traditional and functional foods.
  9. Advocate and strengthen national nutrition literacy through participatory knowledge management.
  10. Train agricultural extension workers and health and nutrition professionals in the importance of dietary diversity and evidence-based beneficial effects of traditional foods to re-establish the relevance of regional agricultural biodiversity in fighting hunger and poverty.
  11. Ensure that food and nutrition support safety net programmes, especially food aid and school feeding programmes as well as food banks, are fostering greater dietary diversity. Broadening the food basket with more indigenous crops as part of National Nutritional Policy can do this.
  12. Restructure research and development priorities to enhance productivity, profitability and value chain development of a wider range of agricultural biodiversity. By bringing in hitherto neglected species, a greater economic stake in their conservation can be created.
  13. Change the mindset to prevent the perennial loss of vanishing crops and dying wisdom through international initiatives to change the public image of under-utilized and orphan crops. This could be done by steps such as re-designating “coarse cereals”, as “nutritious cereals”, and classifying a wide range of leafy vegetables, tubers, grain legumes and tropical fruits as “health foods”. Saving plants for saving lives and livelihoods should become everybody’s business.

The global struggle against poverty and hunger cannot be won now or in the long run without increased international collaboration in the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of agricultural biodiversity. The Chennai recommendations pointed out that even after five years after the adoption of the MDGs, most developing nations were unable to make proportionate progress in the elimination of hunger and poverty. This indicated that a "business as usual" approach would not help to achieve the goal of a hunger-free world.

Equally concerning was the growing population exceeding the growth rate in food production. Where hunger rules, peace cannot prevail, the report warned. Hence, experts recommended that the time had come to embrace the idea of a decentralized and community-managed sustainable nutrition security system based on expanded utilisation of agricultural biodiversity.