It seems we need a Pride Month for our food systems. The recent global crises we’ve sustained in the pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, and a myriad of natural disasters have demonstrated the fragility our food system has become. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization released June’s food price index showing food prices have risen an unbelievable 50% in the last 18 months. It is calculated that COVID-19 has caused 118 million people to experience chronic hunger. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts future declines in nutrient-dense foods, nutrition content in staple foods, and increased supply chain issues.
How did we get here? While there are many factors involved in the complexity of our global food supply network, it has become clear in recent research that the lack of diversity in agricultural processes is at the top.
Extinction threats of popular crops and livestock
In 2019, the first ever study on the global state of agrobiodiversity was conducted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA). This study revealed that of the 6,000 species of plants cultivated for food, only 9 make up 66% of total food production worldwide. This research also showed that many domesticated livestock and crops are at risk of extinction from overuse with only 8 animal species making up 97% of meat production worldwide. This reflects the reality that diet diversity is also declining.
The disappearance of microorganisms
Not only are our crop and livestock experiencing threats of extinction, but many of the microorganisms our systems rely on are facing decline. Due to poor land management, improper agricultural practices, pesticide use, and pollution, many of these “invisible” contributors to healthy ecosystems are disappearing such as pollinators and invertebrates. These important players keep our ecosystems balanced and provide services such as fertilization and water purification. Without them, our food’s ecosystem will be highly unstable and make effective agricultural yield nearly impossible.
The effects of monoculture and intensive farming on agrobiodiversity
The backbones of modern agricultural practices are intensive farming and monoculture farming. Intensive farming seeks to get the highest yield from a plot of land possible through use of pesticides, chemical fertilization, and machine-use for planting/harvesting. Monoculture farming is the practice of planting and raising only one type of crop repeatedly on a plot of land.
These two practices, when combined as they are today, lead to a cyclical depletion process where the monoculture practice depletes soil health and variability thereby making plants more susceptible to pests and insect harm. This is then corrected by the use of chemicals and pesticides which further depletes soil health and kills off positive insect and microorganism diversity on the land which are critical for maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
What do we do?
This research demonstrates a scary reality – our world’s biodiversity is quickly disappearing and our food system’s resiliency to bounce back from this depletion will not be possible if things continue as they are.
1. Knowledge is power
Understanding what the main drivers of declining agrobiodiversity are, how ecosystems interrelate, and what effective sustainable options exist will go a long way in driving change. And starting to promote this knowledge at young ages will be crucial. NJIN is committed to teaching young people about the environmental issues and their place in the ecosystem. Enroll today for one of our summer programs and gain the knowledge necessary to enact change.
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2. Support local
Smallholders, people who either own or manage an agricultural plot smaller than a farm, make up 84% of global farmland but only control 12% of all agricultural property. Studies show that smallholders’ land have both greater biodiversity and higher yields compared to larger farms.
This means supporting your local farmers will go a long way in improving and expanding small, biodiverse ecosystems. Find a farmer’s market near you and begin incorporating buying local into your shopping routine. Eating seasonally is also a great way to put less stress on the high-demand crops and livestock.
3. Go outside
There is a permaculture design idea that any plant that needs extra attention or care should be placed along a well-worn path of travel. The idea is that if you have to go out of your way to do something, it will be that much harder to do.
This same principle applies to enacting change in your environment. You will not know what you care about or how to help nature if you are never experiencing nature. Thus, simply going outside into your local habitat, learning what plants surround you, and what the natural landscape is like all inform you about the specificities of the world you live in. This will help your personal interest connect with your knowledge and motivate you to find ways that you specifically can help rebuild and care for the earth.
It is going to take a lot of time, concerted effort, intellect, curiosity, and collaboration for us to reverse the state of agrobiodiversity on our planet. Remember, we are all in this together. And also remember that the more diverse we and the planet are – the PROUDER we are – the stronger we become.
Julie Kucks is a freelance content writer for New Jersey Institute of Nature and Cedar Hill Prep. Her work has also been featured in Fine Living Lancaster. Julie's writing interests include sustainable living practices, permaculture, mental health, and the power of breathwork. She also enjoys piano tuning, singing and songwriting, playing mountain dulcimer, hiking, and carousing with her kittens, Nike & Lionne.