ROME - Biodiversity in agriculture is about culture. Traditional knowledge and culture are as important as research and investments aver farmers, researchers and academicians who are gathered in Rome to celebrate International Day for Biodiversity on Saturday.
While there will be talk on preserving the panda and other endangered animal species on biodiversity day, the focus is on food and agriculture which are ‘'key for nutrition, to feed the world despite the impacts of climate change,'' says Emile Frison, director-general of Bioversity International (BI), which is based in Maccarese, outside Rome.
BI, which is dedicated to the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity and a part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research is organising in Rome, Biodiversity Week (20-23 May), to discuss the key role of biodiversity in agriculture.
And it does so by highlighting the link between nature, food and culture, since "the diversity of crops and livestock not only provides nutritional security but also in economic development, history, culture and the struggle against climate change for everyone on the planet," Frison said.
According to Bioversity there are about 30,000 edible plant species of which three, rice, wheat and maize, provide 60 percent of calories for human beings.
However, the value of these staples is hardly recognised. "When you talk about biodiversity people around the table are essentially from ministries of environment, and they come from a background of nature conservation and protection. For them, traditionally, agriculture has been the enemy, the one that encroaches on the environment,'' Frison told IPS.
"What we realise today is that there is much greater attention [paid] to biodiversity in agricultural ecosystems and also to agricultural biodiversity itself. We can no longer just care about protected areas, but now we must look at how we can make the entire biodiversity more useful to people."
If the challenge is to acknowledge the cultural dimension of nutrition to achieve more sustainable and diverse agriculture, this can only be done with the direct involvement of farmers.
In the international year on biodiversity, we cannot forget agricultural biodiversity and also the farmers who make a huge work of recovery, valorisation and use of agro-biodiversity, Antonio Onorati of the International Planning Committee for food sovereignty told IPS.
Being not only the custodians but also the creators of biodiversity, farmers ask "to be responsible for the diversity of what we plant, producing our seeds, creating new varieties, in cooperation with researchers, but in the fields," Onorati said.
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It is called participatory plant breeding, and many examples can be found in the world. These programmes are based on the dynamic collaboration between plant breeding institutions and farmers, and designed to ensure that research is directly relevant to farmers' needs.
These programmes can effectively maintain and improve agricultural biodiversity, Onorati said, and also empower farmers since seed production and the choice of variety are made in alliance with them.
Researchers quite recognise that traditional knowledge is a value. According to Frison, the traditional farmers' system of exchanging seeds - now overwhelmed by the industrial production - is the key to maintenance of traditional varieties that can better adapt to new climatic conditions.
"We must give voice to the food communities,'' said Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International that gave life to Terra Madre (Mother Earth), the world meeting of food communities that gathers farmers and food producers from 155 countries - all committed to defend and promote environmentally friendly modes of production, natural resources and biodiversity conservation.
"The virtuous conservation practices of thousands of food communities can really compete with the big economic entities, and with the market. In this sense, they are an economic subject, not a political subject, though they are not heard by decision-making powers," Petrini said.
Traditional farmers' knowledge should be preserved and transmitted to future generations, according to Petrini who has a dream, creation of the ‘granaries of memory', a documented collection of old people, women and indigenous groups who have dedicated their life to the land.
"The knowledge and the memory of humble people are extraordinary, and they must be transmitted to future generations; they will serve as a granary of knowledge when, one day, we will be affected by shortage of ideas."
Here women have a major role to play. An example is the Italian community of Teramo, in the Abruzzo region, Petrini told IPS. "Here since centuries, in May, women do the so-called ‘virtues'; they collect all the leftovers from the winter such as dried fruit or leftover pork."
"When spring arrives, all this food is put together and cooked with fresh vegetables in a dish called ‘virtu terramane', which is a masterpiece of flavour and represents the fight against food wasting. The message is no food must go waste," he said.