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What's the Problem?

Agriculture has to face two main challenges in relation with biodiversity:
  • to sustain agricultural biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by, and necessary for, agriculture, and
  • to mitigate the negative impacts of agricultural systems and practices on biodiversity which is not used directly whether in the same or other ecosystems.

To address these challenges, agriculture is required to take into account different drivers of change such as:
  • indirect drivers, e.g. demography (and the expected major growth world population and food demand), economy (e.g. globalization, market, and trade forces), socio politics (e.g. consumption choices, and policy, institutional and legal frameworks), and science and technology;
  • direct drivers, e.g. climate change, natural resource availability (in particular water), overuse of agricultural chemicals, land-use changes.

All these drivers contribute to the loss of biodiversity both in agricultural and other ecosystems, threatening human well-being.

While agriculture contributes significantly to conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, it is also a major driver of biodiversity loss. The Earth’s biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate, putting in jeopardy the sustainability of agriculture and ecosystem services and their ability to adapt to changing conditions, threatening food and livelihoods security.

The major challenge for agriculture is to ensure food security, adequate nutrition and stable livelihoods for all, now and in the future, by increasing food production while adopting sustainable and efficient agriculture, sustainable consumption of resources, and landscape-level planning to ensure the preservation of biodiversity.

The evolution of agriculture...

A rapidly growing global human population, and therefore a rapidly growing world demand for food, coupled with changing production and consumption patterns have stimulated the evolution of agriculture from traditional to modern, intensive systems.

However, while modern agriculture has enabled food production to increase, contributing much to improving food security and reducing poverty, it has also been responsible for considerable damage to biodiversity, primarily through land-use conversion which is expected to remain the largest driver of biodiversity loss beyond 2010 and at least to 2050, but also through overexploitation, intensification of agricultural production systems, excessive chemical and water use, nutrient loading, pollution and introduction of alien species.

...threatens agricultural biodiversity, and biodiversity in other ecosystems

During the last decades, worldwide biodiversity has been lost at an unprecedented rate in all the ecosystems, including agro-ecosystems. Homogenization of agricultural production systems, mainly due to intensification of agricultural systems coupled with specialization by plant and animals breeders and the harmonizing effects of globalization, is one of the greatest causes of agricultural biodiversity loss, through genetic erosion and the increasing levels of genetic vulnerability of specialized crops and livestock. According to the FAO, it is estimated that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity found in agricultural crops has been lost over the last century, and this genetic erosion continues. For example, today, 90% of our food energy and protein comes from only 15 plant and 8 animal species, with disturbing consequences for nutrition and food security. Wheat, rice and maize alone provide more than 50% of the global plant-based energy intake.

In addition to agricultural biodiversity, modern agricultural practices can also impact biodiversity in other ecosystems through several ways such as unsustainable demands on water (for irrigation for example), overgrazing, as well as excessive use of nutrients and chemical inputs to control weeds, pests and diseases that result in problems of pollution and eutrophication. Furthermore, land and habitat conversion (in particular forests, wetlands, and marginal lands) to large-scale agricultural production also cause significant loss of biodiversity.

Although farmers’ traditional knowledge is key to both sustain biodiversity and to ensure global food security, today it is as well considered by many to be part of the much-threatened global commons. Farmers are requested to both preserve biodiversity and contribute to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population. However, they do not control all factors involved including those related to agricultural policies, incentives , markets or consumption patterns, and therefore need support from government policy.

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  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme