Towards synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation: the opening session

By Joern Fischer

Yesterday, I briefly reported that today would be the opening of the conference “Biodiversity and Food Security – From Trade-offs to Synergies”. Here is how it went! Wolfgang Cramer gave a short introduction to the conference. Among other things, he highlighted that several of the new sustainable development goals are quite directly linked to food security or biodiversity conservation. However, he also noted the linkages between food security and biodiveristy conservation had not been explicitly addressed in these goals. Bringing these two areas together, in turn, was one of the central goals of this conference. Wolfgang’s personal wishes for the conference are worth repeating: that we become even more solution-oriented in our research, and that we communicate our findings even more clearly, to a broader set of audiences. Following two further short introductions to the conference, the audience was ready to get stuck into the topic.

First, Heribert Hofer talked about “Biodiversity, the Millennium Development Goals, Health, Water and Biodiversity”. A main goal of Heribert’s talk was to summarise the previous two conferences in the series, of which this one is the third. The first was in 2010, and it provided an overview of a large range of the (then) UN Millennium goals and how they related to biodiversity. Four conclusions from the first conference were:

  1. The relevance of biodiversity to human well-being was underestimated.
  2. Fundamental knowledge gaps existed, specifically regarding marine and soil biodiversity.
  3. There were many under-appreciated synergies between human well-being and biodiversity.
  4. Science was lagging behind societal needs.

Many of these key outcomes, Heribert argued, were still relevant today (and they are summarised in the Frankfurt declaration). The second conference, in 2013, focused specifically on the intersection of biodiversity and (both ecosystem and human) health. Its findings are available here and revolve around themes like infectious diseases, bushmeat consumption and the particular dangers of infections from remote locations; all of which are topics that are also relevant today, particularly in the context of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Josef Settele then presented on “Climate, biodiversity and food security”. Sepp (Josef) is active in the IPCC, and  in his presentation, he synthesised some key effects of climate change as identified in the most recent report – both on biodiversity as well as on food security. On the food side, the IPCC predicted that most poor countries would be heavily affected by reduced food production in the following decades. Potential solutions highlighted by the IPCC to adapt to climate change include adapting planting times, as well as planting different cultivars. On the biodiversity side, existing data showed that range shifts were now quite common. However, many less mobile species in particular were predicted to be unable to adapt to climate change. Sepp also summarised other changes resulting from climate change, including an assessment of the confidence we have about these changes actually taking place, and how confidently we can attribute them to climate change as the cause.

Finally, José Sarukhán gave a talk entitled “Biodiversity and the Future of Food Security”. On his first slide already, Jose highlighted that he would largely be focusing on food sovereignty in his talk – including an emphasis on local rights as well as on ecological sustainability. Jose structured his talk into five simple but interesting postulates, which are well worth repeating here:

  1. How the population of the mid-21st century will be fed, will define the degree of conservation of the remaining natural ecosytems on the planet.
  2. High-tech agriculture, as it is applied today, is ecologically and economically unsustainable. Its social, economic and environmental externalities are unacceptable.
  3. Given the ecological diversity of megadiverse countries (often with large ethnic/cultural diversity), no single agricultural system will solve the problems of food security.
  4. A broad range of technologies suited to the environmental characteristics of each region are needed. It is necesssary to know, understand and help improve, when necessary, the traditional technologies with full participation of the farmers. (For better or worse, “sustainable intensification” was highlighted as particularly important.)
  5. The genetic diversity of native cultivars results from thousands of years of selection under domestication. The diversity of their wild relatives represents millions of years of natural selection: together, they are the most valuable and irreplaceable source of responses for food production under climatic changes.

While nice points were raised in this session (especially towards the end), overall, it left me feeling that much more could have been said to push intellectual, practical, and ethical boundaries, especially on the intersection of food security and biodiversity. I’ll be interested to see what tomorrow brings … including the session I will be co-chairing. I’ll be encouraging our speakers to be bold!

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