Tapping into farmers' bounty to meet the Sustainable Development Goals

Crop diversity can help us adapt to a rapidly changing world by ensuring the production of nutritious, sustainably produced food from local farming.

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"Crop diversity is not merely an accident of history or geography but also the product of stewardship by specific societies and cultural traditions. The farming peoples who maintain the bounty of different species and crop types are far removed from the societies and cultures that domesticated plants, but they have sustained and nurtured diversity inherited from previous societies.

Stephen B. Brush, Farmers' Bounty, 2004

Many people are now well aware of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 by the 193 United Nation member states. These are part of a new international agenda to address the most fundamental challenges in global sustainability and human development. However, much fewer people are familiar with the 169 targets behind the goals, which are the building stones of our common ambition to achieve the SDGs. Let's have a look at two targets of one of the most fundamental and pressing goals, SDG nº2, Zero Hunger. Target 2.4 advocates the need for implementing "resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather" while target 2.5 urges to "maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species". What if these two objectives are in fact very closely linked?

Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and  promote sustainable agriculture - Project - ISGLOBAL

Farmers have long used local ecological knowledge, intricate production systems and livelihood strategies that include off-farm options to cope, adapt and reorganize to meet climate uncertainty and risk, which have always been a fact of life. For example, in the high Andes, ancient organizational arrangements like vertical access to multiple ecological zones at different altitude levels have allowed to cope with inherent climate variability. Those traditional systems are generally highly resilient, but the predicted effects, and variability of climate change, in particular extreme heat and drought events, may push them beyond their range of adaptability. Moreover, increased climate variability and change is now happening at the same time that socio-economic factors such as the impacts of markets, governmental policies in favour of externally-based technology and population growth pressure are weakening the capacity of local knowledge and organization in agriculture to contribute to a sustainable system.

Andean farmers use the vertical dimension of their environment to face environmental variability (Chopcca , Central Peru).

In this context, agrobiodiversity, in particular the variety and variability of crops may help farmers face a rapidly changing and warming world. Maintained by rural communities, crop diversity reflects the interactions between people, their environment and their available biological reservoir. The continued use and adaptive management of this diversity allow rural communities to solve multiple problems (e.g. facing new pests, changing soil or climatic conditions) while meeting their production needs and consumption preferences. Yet, we have only few demonstrations of the role of intraspecific diversity for resilience of food systems to climate change, and none at a global scale. A recent global study using sweet potato as a model strongly supports the idea that crop intraspecific diversity will be essential to help farmers adapt and ensure food and nutrition security under climate change. Crop cultivars provide farmers with more options to manage climatic risks and strengthen the resilience of their farming systems.

Markets and seed fairs supply and widely distribute among farmers selected varieties, here potatoes (Guamote, Ecuador).

Maintaining farmers’ roles and engagement in the evolution of crop diversity is central to adaptation to climate change. However, many young farmers do not necessarily want to continue to grow a diverse set of varieties (particularly landraces) due to the inability of markets to absorb diversity, the diversification of their practices to other crops, or a lack of time and interests as they get involved in non-farm labour opportunities. It is therefore urgent to increase the value of local varieties for farmers and to demonstrate how the maintenance of crop infraspecific diversity can benefit them. From a global agenda viewpoint, this means we need further research to document how crop diversity may allow meet multiple SDGs and targets and what social, economic and cultural incentives can be offered to people to preserve crop diversity. Firmly rooted in ancient times, the farmers' bounty maybe one of our best assets to face an uncertain future.

I am grateful to Stef de Haan for useful comments on this text.

Olivier Dangles

Researcher, French Research Institute for Research and Development (IRD)

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