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Our biodiversity, our food, our health: Celebrating the International Day for Biological Diversity 2019

David James Molden

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Biodiversity is a global asset of tremendous value, recognized as “natural capital” necessary for the survival of all species that share this planet. The International Day for Biological Diversity is annually celebrated on 22 May to draw attention to this indispensable asset, and the importance of ensuring its conservation and sustainable, equitable use of its benefits. This year’s theme – “Our biodiversity, our food, our health” – recognizes biodiversity as the basis of our food security and health. Alarmingly, the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services documents an accelerating rate of species loss and extinction and increasing vulnerability.

The comprehensive Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment report states that one-fourth of endemic species from some parts of the Himalaya could become extinct by 2100. The assessment also points out that over 30% of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region’s population suffers from food insecurity. Around half faces some form of malnutrition.

The state of our food and nutrition security and food production systems is inextricably linked to the health of the region’s biological diversity. The central message is quite bleak: the increasing degradation of our vital ecosystems could destabilize our food and nutrition security. With the ever-increasing human population and concomitant rise in demand for food and other resources, biodiversity conservation is becoming increasingly important for maintaining food systems and improving welfare.

Biodiverse ecosystems are important for agriculture as they provide pollination services, much needed water regulation and erosion control from mature land cover, regulation of microclimate and a source of soil fertility and nutrients important for agriculture. Healthy diverse ecosystems play an important role in pest control and control of invasive species. These ecosystems themselves are sources of important edible and medicinal products. Also provided are the genetic material important for future food, for example in wild relatives of edible plants.

Biodiverse agro-ecosystems themselves play an incredibly important role in nutrition and health of people, as well as supporting the benefits stated above. However, an unhealthy trend over the last few decades has been the shift away from diverse nutritious foods, and the increasing dependence on a handful of main crops and vegetables as staple foods grown in mono-culture agricultural systems. Similarly agricultural research has focused on provision of calories by improving the productivity of rice, wheat and maize, with broader issues of nutrition and environment taking second place. We have to start looking beyond calories and focus on nutrition and ecological security, and do so in ways that support livelihoods.

Mountains play a special role in biodiversity conservation and provisioning food and nutrition. More than 60% of global biodiversity hotspots are located in mountains, and mountains harbour a quarter of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Of the world’s total land based protected areas, 28% lie in mountains, and 39% of the area of the Hindu Kush Himalaya is under protected area management. The HKH region is endowed with rich biodiversity that sustains around 240 million people, but the degradation of its fragile ecosystems could threaten not only food supply and nutrition but also traditional practices and knowledge. For example, at current rates of ecosystem degradation, it may no longer be possible to produce traditional medicines integral to mountain lifestyles – such as the ones prepared by amchis (Tibetan healers) and other shamanism-based medicines – and indigenous mountain identities, practices and knowledge will gradually erode.

ICIMOD sees tremendous opportunities in promoting more biodiverse agricultural landscapes in the mountains, even in light of alarming trends of biodiversity loss and loss of traditional food systems. There is increasing demand for high value, nutritious and medicinal products from mountain areas, and still, the local knowledge remains to produce this food sustainably. The opportunity is to nurture that demand, and stimulate supply from mountain areas, with local mountain people receiving the benefits from these products. We have good examples. The demand for mountain-produced honey is high, and many people make a good living from honey. There is growing demand for healthy grains such as sorghum, amaranth and millet. More people are growing specialty crops like kiwis, yacun, quinoa, in addition to coffee and tea, and organic agriculture is prominent in both policy statements and practice in the mountains. ICIMOD is working with a group of agricultural centres, the Association of International Centres for Agriculture (AIRCA), with a much needed focus on diverse agricultural systems and nutrition. Indeed, the mountains of the Hindu Kush Himalaya and beyond can be a home of nature based agricultural solutions, with payoffs to humanity in the short term and the long run.

The IPBES report has put nature loss in the global spotlight and warns us that time is running out. We need to rethink and revisit the importance of mountain ecosystems, recognize their fragility, address the brunt of climate change faced by mountain communities, and focus on ecosystem heath and resilience. It is time for bold and concrete actions. Based on the results of the HKH Assessment, a Call for Action is being developed calling for increased ecosystem resilience, and for more nature based solutions that address poverty and malnutrition. As the global community prepares for a post-2020 agenda for the Convention on Biological Diversity, we need a realistic strategy to support a global biodiversity agreement that has the heft and commitment of the Paris Agreement with clear targets to protect biodiversity and ecosystems vital for food production, clean water, and carbon sequestration.

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