Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture

Awareness of biodiversity’s importance has been skyrocketing, but the term is often associated with wildlife and ecosystems, rather than the plants we rely on for sustenance. The Alliance is providing evidence for and pushing global efforts to increase support for the conservation and use of biodiversity for food and agriculture.

In the final weeks of 2019, we presented a proposal to further include food systems in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 global biodiversity agenda. However, this is just one of many steps building on our wide-ranging experience and network of partnerships in plant genetic resource conservation and use. Last year saw prolific outputs on themes that ranged from indigenous and gendered knowledge to seedbanks and food sector collaboration.

An index for agrobiodiversity

2019 saw the rollout of the Agrobiodiversity Index, with the publication of the first methodology report, first set of country profiles, and first company applications. It was the year that the Alliance demonstrated to the international community that the Agrobiodiversity Index was ready as a scientifically grounded tool to make a difference in achieving food system sustainability.

Cover of the 2019 ABD Index Report

The 2019 Agrobiodiversity Index report contains eight thought pieces authored by experts from around the world in diverse fields. The pieces focus on agrobiodiversity and risk, resilience, or both. Ten country profiles and a cross-country analysis shed light on the status of agrobiodiversity across different regions and assess how well we are using and conserving this diversity.

Strikingly, the analysis revealed that while more developed countries such as Italy, Peru, Australia and the USA tend to have higher levels of agrobiodiversity, emerging economies such as India, Kenya and South Africa are performing better in terms of conservation commitments and actions. This may suggest that these developing countries can become the future gatekeepers for agrobiodiversity.

An indicator for useful wild plants

The Alliance also published an indicator for assessing the conservation status of useful species, so far covering the representation in in-situ and ex-situ conservation systems for 7,000 wild plants from 220 countries. In an exciting step forward for protecting these culturally and economically important species, the Convention on Biological Diversity formally adopted the indicator to measure countries’ progress in achieving global targets.

“This tool will allow policymakers and conservationists across the globe to better understand which plants are in need of prioritization for conservation and also how countries and the planet as a whole are progressing in caring for them,” said Colin Khoury, an Alliance researcher and the lead author of the study that the indicator is based on.

Read about the Index Report:

Read more on the Useful Plants Indicator:

The Agrobiodiversity Index has been made possible through the support of different funders from the private and public sectors, including the Government of Italy and the European Commission.


Neglected no more: new resources on underutilized crops

From obscure ancient grains to vegetables that “grandma used to cook,” there are countless species and varieties that are overlooked by producers, consumers, and researchers around the world. Unbeknownst to many, these neglected and underutilized species (NUS) can offer significant contributions to healthy and resilient ecosystems; we just need to supply the evidence and the resources to harness their full potential.

Researchers and partners promote chaya in Jocotan market, Guatemala. Bioversity International/N.Amaya

2019 saw the Alliance continuing projects to assess and promote NUS in countries from Guatemala to Sri Lanka, including initiatives to support indigenous communities, school feeding, nutrition, and local markets. Notable outputs included:

Value-added local food diversity at a food festival in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Bioversity International/N.Amaya

  • An article in Economic Botany detailing the value chain for chaya (Mayan spinach), a leafy vegetable overlooked as “food for the poor” in Guatemala, which can contribute to improving nutrition and income generation under climate change as a result of its nutritional values, drought-tolerance, great taste, and culinary versatility.
  • An operational framework to support nutrition-sensitive agriculture through NUS, a collection of best practices and case studies from the last two decades, jointly developed with IFAD and with a focus on empowering women and indigenous peoples.
  • The Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Database, a compilation of nutritional data on 185 species from Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, along with an article in Planta highlighting approaches to conduct research, influence policy, and raise awareness about NUS.
  • The Diversification for Resilience Handbook, a participatory assessment to guide communities on how they can diversify agroecosystems for climate adaptation that explores actions at three levels: 1) maintaining a portfolio of crops, varieties and breeds with stress tolerance traits, 2) integrating diversity-rich practices that foster positive interactions between elements; and 3) maintaining and restoring landscape-level diversity to buffer climate stresses and provide alternative food and livelihood sources.

Display of diverse fruits and vegetables at a Convention on Biological Diversity event. Bioversity International.

By connecting community knowledge and experiences from around the world, these resources can help scale up efforts to conserve and better use the full range of agricultural biodiversity available to us.

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Going wild to protect our crops’ relatives

Growing up in the wild makes plants tough. Thriving under rugged conditions and adapting to local ecosystems, crop wild relatives (CWR) are valuable resources for our future. Yet, 2019 research by Alliance scientists showed that the conservation status of many of these crops is cause for alarm, as they struggle against the destruction of their natural habitats and the harshening impacts of climate change.

This is a global issue with wide-ranging implications for human health and food security amid a worsening climate crisis. The researchers called on governments, research organizations, and philanthropists to dedicate more resources to the issue.

“The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to hotter, colder, drier, wetter, saltier, and other difficult conditions,” reported researcher Colin Khoury. “But they are impacted by habitat destruction, over-harvesting, climate change, pollution, invasive species, and more. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action.”

New research covered the extended families of gourds, chile peppers, lettuce, and carrots.

Food market in Vietnam. CIAT/N.Palmer

“Since they aren’t cereal commodities, vegetables get less attention, especially when it comes to their wild relatives,” said Khoury. “But for health and sustainability reasons, these are the kind of crops that researchers should be devoting more of their time to.”

As in-situ conservation is becoming progressively more difficult, researchers are assessing how to rapidly increase ex-situ efforts before it is too late; for example, the relatives of about 65 percent of wild pumpkins and 95 percent of wild chile peppers are currently not well-represented ex-situ.

Chili pepper diversity. Bioversity International/M.Ramirez

Building the South African CWR Network

The Alliance has also launched a Darwin Initiative-funded project to develop the South African Crop Wild Relatives Network, an Alliance-led effort for better conservation and use of CWR in countries across Southern Africa. The participating countries and international research organizations are working to establish National Strategy and Action Plans for in-situ conservation, fill CWR gaps in genebanks, enhance benefits for farmers using CWRs, increase access to germplasm and collaborate with genebanks, and build gendered capacity for conservation and use. Surveys within the network have also focused on the potential for CWRs in improved breeding.

Seed fair in South Africa. Bioversity International/R.Vernooy

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Read the press release:


Celebrating the 10th anniversary of Cocoa of Excellence

On a sweeter note, 2019 saw the Cocoa of Excellence Programme (CoEx) reach its tenth year of increasing awareness and promoting education along the cocoa supply chain about the opportunity to produce high-quality cocoa and the need to preserve flavors resulting from genetic diversity, the terroir and the know-how of the farmers who prepare cocoa. This culminated on stage with the International Cocoa Awards at the Salon du Chocolat, Paris, October 2019 amidst more than 500 producers, buyers, and manufacturers from around the world. Farmers who were selected for having produced the best 50 cocoa bean samples traveled to Paris to taste chocolate, including their own and find out with great excitement the selection of the International Cocoa Awards.

The International Cocoa Awards. T.Raffoux

The Alliance is simultaneously coordinating the development of international standards for assessing the quality and flavor of cocoa, encouraging the production of diverse cacao in participating countries.

Cacao producers in Côte d’Ivoire. N.Ambroise

In the words of Brigitte Laliberté, CoEx Programme Coordinator, “The most remarkable evolution of the Cocoa of Excellence Programme is the enthusiasm of the cocoa-producing countries to participate in greater numbers every edition. We started this great adventure in 2009 with 20 countries and today we have 55 countries and hope that at the next Edition in 2021 we will reach 70.  We are entering a new era for cacao that makes us discover all the potential and the pleasures that its genetic diversity, its environment, its culture, and the know-how of all these women and men that grow cocoa and upon which their prosperity depends.”

This greater recognition marks an important step in ensuring both the future of cocoa and supporting the livelihoods of the 40-50 million people worldwide dependent on it for income.

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