Home » Biodiversity » Level 2

The state in the world of the biodiversity for food and agriculture

1. Introduction

    This report provides an extensive (570 p) assessment of biodiversity for food and agriculture (BFA) and its management worldwide, drawing on information provided by 91 country reports. Biodiversity for food and agriculture is defined as: “…the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels that sustain the ecosystem structures, functions and processes in and around production systems, and that provide food and nonfood agricultural products.”

    In December 2016, the high-level ministerial segment of the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD adopted the Cancún Declaration on Mainstreaming the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity for Well-being (CBD, 2016a). More than 190 countries committed themselves to working to mainstream biodiversity and “bearing in mind that the agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism sectors heavily depend on biodiversity and its components, as well as on the ecosystem functions and services which biodiversity underpins, and that these sectors also impact on biodiversity in various direct and indirect ways, … to undertake specific actions for each sector …”

    2. What makes biodiversity important for food and agriculture?

      Biodiversity is the variety of life at genetic, species and ecosystem levels, it is essential for the resilience of ecosystems. A part of this essential biodiversity contributes in one way or another to agriculture and food production. It includes all the species that are used directly in food production: the domesticated plants and animals raised in crop, livestock, forest and aquaculture systems, harvested forest and aquatic species, the wild relatives of domesticated species, and other wild species harvested for food and other products. It also includes what is known as “associated biodiversity”: the myriad of other species of plants, animals and micro-organisms that underpin agricultural production systems and contribute to their output, whether by creating and maintaining healthy soils, pollinating plants, purifying water, providing protection against extreme weather events, enabling ruminant animals to digest fibrous plant materials or delivering any of a range of other vital services.

      Biodiversity increases resilience to shocks and stresses, provides opportunities to adapt production systems to emerging challenges and is a key resource in efforts to increase output in a sustainable way. Resilience is sometimes thought of as the capacity of a system to withstand or recover from shocks. However, in recent years it has increasingly tended to be viewed in a more dynamic way – as the capacity to maintain particular properties in the face of changes of various kinds.

      Supplying enough safe and nutritious food for a growing world population poses many challenges. Among the most serious ones is the need to increase food production globally without undermining the capacity of the world’s lands and seas to meet the food needs of future generations and to deliver other essential ecosystem services.

      There are many ways in which increasing the diversity of the biological components within production systems can contribute to sustainable intensification of food production. For example, potential biodiversity-based approaches to sustainable intensification in aquaculture include polyculture, i.e. raising multiple species or taxonomic groups (including the use of bioremediation species), shifting to vegetable-based feed, and improving interactions with other production-system components such as crops and livestock.

      In some key areas, efforts towards a conservation of biodiversity are also vital to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda, including:

      • Pollinisation. An estimated 87 % of all flowering plant species are pollinated by animals. Crops at least partially pollinated by animals account for 35 % of global food production and are particularly significant in the supply of micronutrients for human consumption, for example accounting for more than 90 % and more than 70 % of available vitamin C and vitamin A, respectively;
      • Protection from predator species. Many different components of biodiversity found in and around production systems help to control species that may attack crops, livestock, trees or aquatic species, cause or spread diseases or otherwise disrupt human activities or the supply of ecosystem services. The direct providers of these services (e.g. predators, parasitoids and herbivores that consume pests, disease vectors or weeds) are referred to as biological control agents. These species can include both those that are naturally present in the local area and those introduced deliberately to help control particular problems; 
      • Climate. In another area, ecosystems used for food and agriculture and the biodiversity within them can affect the climate at global, continental and local scales. Forests, grasslands and freshwater, marine and coastal ecosystems play key roles in the Earth’s carbon cycle and hence, in regulating greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere. In all cases, the uptake and release of carbon depend on complex processes involving an enormous range of interacting species; 
      • Water. Many different organisms contribute to the process of filtering pollutants before they can enter water bodies, transferring them out of the water (e.g. into bottom sediments or the atmosphere) or degrading them into benign or less-harmful components; 
      • Cultural services. Biodiversity has a major influence on the aesthetic appearance of many ecosystems, their capacity to inspire, their suitability for various recreational activities and their educational significance.

      3. What are the main drivers that are affecting biodiversity?

        Despite repeated warnings about the rapid loss of biodiversity and the mounting evidence of its key role in food security and nutrition, production systems worldwide are becoming ever less diverse in terms of the ecosystems, species and within-species genetic resources they comprise. In many parts of the world, biodiverse agricultural landscapes in which cultivated land is interspersed with uncultivated areas such as woodlands, pastures and wetlands have been, or are being, replaced by large areas of monoculture, and farmed using large quantities of external inputs such as pesticides, mineral fertilizers and fossil fuels.

        Livestock production is increasingly becoming geographically separated from crop production, with animals often raised in landless production units, heavily dosed with veterinary drugs and fed on feedstuffs produced elsewhere and transported over long distances. Although high levels of crop and livestock production have been achieved, this has often come at the cost of major disruptions to the integrity of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, of declining opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions between sectors, and of the loss of components of biodiversity that provide services such as pollination, pest control and nutrient cycling.

        Reported threats to wild species

        There are many factors that have major negative impact on biodiversity and on the resilience of the ecosystem services it provides, but some may have also a positive impact and can help promote more sustainable management. Changes in land and water use and management leading to loss and degradation of forest and aquatic ecosystems are the main drivers mentioned by the greatest number of countries as having negative effects on regulating and supporting ecosystem services.

        Insert: Biodiversity and the pollination function
        Nearly 90 % of all flowering-plant species, including the vast majority of those in tropical forests, savannah woodlands, mangroves and temperate deciduous forests, depend, to some degree, on animal pollination. Pollinators can be invertebrates, like bees, or vertebrates, like birds. Reports of bee-colony losses are on the rise; 16.5 % of vertebrate pollinator species are threatened with global extinction (rising to 30 % for island species). Declines in wild-pollinator populations are reported by several countries, with the major threats reported to include habitat loss and fragmentation, use of pesticides, decline in the diversity of landscapes and plant communities, and climate change. The report notes that both wild pollinators and other managed bee species, such as bumble bees (Bombusspp.) and solitary bees (e.g. Osmiaspp.), have been found to be equally or more efficient pollinators for some crops and could complement, or in some cases even replace, honey-bee pollination.

        Some of the other factors that drive the change in biodiversity operate at a global level, like changes in climate or in the international markets, while some others operate at a more local level, like changes in land use or proliferation of invasive species. Interactions between these drivers of change can exacerbate their effects on biodiversity for food and agriculture partially caused by inappropriate agricultural practices: overexploitation, overharvesting, pollution, overuse of external inputs, and changes in land and water management. It is interesting to note that global forest area continues to decline, although the rate of loss decreased by 50 % between the periods 1990–2000 and 2010–2015. 

        Demographic changes, urbanization, markets, trade and consumer preferences are reported to have a strong influence on food systems. Loss and degradation of forest and aquatic ecosystems, and in many production systems, transition to intensive production of a reduced number of species, breeds and varieties, have negative consequences for biodiversity. However, drivers such as consumer’s preference are also reported to open opportunities to make food systems more sustainable, for example thro 

        Many of the drivers that have negative impacts on biodiversity, including overexploitation, overharvesting, pollution, overuse of external inputs, and changes in land and water management, are at least partially caused by inappropriate agricultural practices. Furthermore, countries report that the maintenance of traditional knowledge is negatively affected by the loss of traditional lifestyles as a result of population growth, urbanization and the industrialization of agriculture and food processing, and by overexploitation and overharvesting.  

        4. What are the trends in biodiversity decline?

          Many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species and ecosystem levels are in decline. Evidence suggests that the proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing, and that, for some crops and, in some areas, plant diversity in farmers’ fields is decreasing and threats to diversity are increasing:

          • Nearly a third of fish stocks are overfished and a third of freshwater fish species assessed are considered threatened; 
          • Many species that contribute to vital ecosystem services, including pollinators, natural enemies of pests, soil organisms and wild food species, are reported in decline as a consequence of the destruction and degradation of habitats, overexploitation, pollution and other threats;  
          • Key ecosystems that deliver numerous services essential to food and agriculture are declining rapidly. These include supply of freshwater, protection against hazards and provision of habitat for species such as fishes and pollinators. 

          Insert: Status and trends of coral reefs
          Recent decades have globally seen massive losses of corals. Declines are attributed to anthropogenic pressures, particularly the effects of climate change, coastal developments and misuse of fishing gear (trawlers). Rising temperatures affect the symbiosis between corals and zooxanthellae) and a prolonged increase of at least 1 °C affects the algae’s ability to photosynthesize, which causes bleaching and subsequent death of the corals.
          Overfishing, illegal fishing and destructive fishing practices such as the use of explosives and cyanide pose a threat in some parts of the world. Declines or shifts in fish populations can also affect the ecological balance of reef communities, compromising their dynamics and processes.

          5. Does the knowledge about biodiversity need to be improved?

            Knowledge of associated biodiversity, in particular micro-organisms and invertebrates, and of its roles in the supply of ecosystem services needs indeed to be improved. While a large amount of information has been accumulated on the characteristics of the domesticated species used in food and agriculture, many information gaps remain, particularly for species, varieties and breeds that are not widely used commercially. Information on wild food species is also often limited.

            Many associated-biodiversity species have never been identified and described, particularly in the case of invertebrates and micro-organisms. Even when they have, their functions within the ecosystem often remain poorly understood. In particular, over 99 % of bacteria and protist species remain not identified while they play an essential role in the equilibrium of ecosystems. For several types of associated biodiversity, including soil micro-organisms and those used for food processing, advances in molecular techniques and sequencing technologies are facilitating characterization.

            If several countries have active programmes for characterizing soil micro-organisms using molecular methods, in many others however, gaps in terms of skills, facilities and equipment constrain opportunities to benefit from these developments. Monitoring programmes for biodiversity for food and agriculture remain limited. Assessment and monitoring of the status and trends of biodiversity at national, regional and global levels are uneven and often limited. Even in developed regions, where the population trends of many species are well monitored and there are numerous ongoing research projects on the links between biodiversity and food and agriculture, available data often provide only a snapshot of the status of individual species (or groups of species) in particular production systems, habitats or geographical areas. While it is clear that many components of biodiversity for food and agriculture are declining, lack of data often constrains the planning and prioritization of effective remedial measures.

            6. What are the practices that contribute to maintain biodiversity?

              The sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity for food and agriculture call for approaches in which genetic resources, species and ecosystems are managed in an integrated way in the context of production systems (in situ) and their surroundings (ex situ). Key tasks include addressing the drivers of biodiversity loss within the food and agriculture sector and beyond, strengthening in situ and ex situ conservation measures, and increasing the uptake of management practices that promote the contributions of biodiversity to sustainable production1. In particular for many types of associated biodiversity and wild foods, sustainable use and conservation require in situ or on-farm management integrated into strategies at ecosystem or landscape levels. ex situ conservation should serve as a complementary strategy.

              Assessment and monitoring of the status and trends of biodiversity at national, regional and global levels regarded as favorable to the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity for food and agriculture are uneven and often limited but are reported to be increasing.

              The 10 principles that characterize the landscape approach

              Many practices in favor of biodiversity are relatively complex and require good understanding of the local ecosystem. They require a high knowledge, depend on their specific context and provide benefits only in the relatively long term. Many countries note that there are major challenges to up-scale such practices and a need to promote them through the development of capacities and by strengthening policy frameworks.

              1 in situ conservation comprises measures that promote the maintenance of biodiversity (including domesticated biodiversity) in and around crop, livestock, forest, aquatic and mixed production systems (or in the case of wild foods and wild relatives of domesticated species also in other habitats).
              ex situ conservation” is defined under the CBD as “the conservation of components of biological diversity outside their natural habitats.” In the context of BFA, ex situ conservation comprises the conservation of relevant components of biodiversity outside their normal habitats in and around production systems.

              7. How far are applied the practices needed for protecting biodiversity and set up sustainable practices in food and agricultural practices?

                Sustainable use and conservation of the ecosystems and of the species and genetic diversity that compose it, require a better knowledge of the roles of biodiversity in the ecological processes that underpin food and agricultural production. This better knowledge should be considered when developing management strategies that protect, restore and enhance these processes across a range of scales.

                In particular, research on food and agricultural systems needs to become more multidisciplinary, more participatory and more focused on interactions between different components of biodiversity for food and agriculture. Improvements to the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity are indeed too often constrained by a lack of understanding of interactions between sectors (crop and livestock production, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture), between wild and domesticated biodiversity, and between the ecological and socio-economic components of production systems. Cooperation across disciplines, and greater involvement of producers and other stakeholders in research projects, can help to overcome these knowledge gaps.

                Fortunately, the use of many biodiversity-friendly practices is reported to be increasing. Countries generally report upward trends in the implementation of various diversification practices in food and agriculture (approaches combining different varieties, species and groups of organisms within the production system).

                Even in developed regions, where the population trends of many species are well monitored and there are numerous ongoing research projects on the links between biodiversity and food and agriculture, available data often provide only a snapshot of the status of individual species (or groups of species) in particular production systems, habitats or geographical areas.

                Crop, livestock, forest and aquatic genetic resources are conserved in situ through a variety of approaches, including promotion of their sustainable use in production systems and the establishment of protected and other designated areas. Although these efforts to conserve biodiversity for food and agriculture in situ and ex situ are increasing, levels of coverage and protection are often inadequate and many species and populations remain inadequately protected.

                It is however difficult to fully evaluate the extent to which these approaches taking into account biodiversity issues are being implemented, because of the variety of scales and contexts involved, and the absence of data and appropriate assessment methods.

                 The ten elements of agroecology
                The 10n elements of agroecology
                Source: The state of the world’s biodiversity for food and agriculture”, FAO. 2019

                Relatively few reported in situ conservation programmes explicitly mention the targets associated to biodiversity preservation and its roles in the supply of ecosystem services. Most of targeted species associated to biodiversity are conserved through the promotion of biodiversity-friendly production practices, the establishment of protected areas, or policy and legal measures aimed at restricting activities that damage biodiversity.

                ex situ conservation efforts for biodiversity for food and agriculture are also increasing, in particular for plant genetic resources, although many gaps in coverage remain and much of the diversity present in minor crops and in livestock, forest and aquatic species is not yet secured.

                Although limited, public- and private-sector biodiversity conservation initiatives for ex situ targeted species have been established, with many countries, for instance, holding culture collections of micro-organisms used in agriculture or in agrifood industries. About 8 % of the wild species reported by countries to be used for food are reported to be subject to in situ conservation measures and 13 % to be conserved ex situ.

                8. Which policy frameworks contribute to the conservation of biodiversity related to food and agriculture practices?

                  Policy measures and advances in science and technology are largely seen by countries as positive drivers that offer ways of reducing the negative effects of other drivers on biodiversity. They provide critical entry points for interventions supporting sustainable use and conservation. However, policies intended to promote the sustainable management of biodiversity for food and agriculture are often weakly implemented.

                  Most countries have put in place legal, policy and institutional frameworks targeting the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity as a whole, however, enabling frameworks for the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity for food and agriculture urgently need to be established or strengthened. These policies are reported to be increasingly based on ecosystem, landscape and seascape approaches but measures explicitly targeting wild foods or other components associated to biodiversity and their roles in supplying ecosystem services are not widespread.

                  Constraints to the development and implementation of effective policy tools include a lack of awareness among policy-makers and other stakeholders of the importance of biodiversity, and in particular wild foods and associated biodiversity, to livelihoods and food security. There is a large knowledge gap in terms of how existing policies are affecting these components of biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide. Diverging interests among stakeholders hamper the development and implementation of laws, policies and regulations, as do shortages of human and financial resources.

                  9. What needs to be done to improve the efficacy of existing policy measures regarding biodiversity?

                    The urgency of closing knowledge gaps in this field is underlined by the mounting evidence that the world’s biodiversity is under severe threat and by the ever-growing challenges facing food and agriculture, including particularly those related to the impacts of climate change.

                    Establishing more effective policy and outreach measures is needed to support the uptake of management practices that sustainably use biodiversity to promote food and livelihood security and resilience. Improving the management of biodiversity for food and agriculture and enhancing its contributions to ecosystem services call for effective actions via better multi-stakeholder, cross-sectoral and international cooperation across the sectors of food and agriculture and between the food and agriculture sector and the environment/nature-conservation sector, including producers and their organizations, consumers, suppliers and marketers, policy-makers, and national and international governmental and non-governmental organizations.

                    Consideration also needs to be given to how the international community can more effectively promote synergies in the management of all components of biodiversity, across these sectors and others, in the interests of a more sustainable food and agriculture. The management of biodiversity spans indeed international borders and the conventional boundaries between individual sectors. Frameworks for cooperation at national, regional and international levels in the management of genetic resources are relatively well developed even if collaborative activities specifically targeting biodiversity and wild foods are less widespread and need to be expanded and strengthened.

                    The country-driven process of preparing the present report The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture has led to the identification of numerous gaps, needs and potential actions in the management of biodiversity. The next step is to take actions. Over the years, the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture2 has overseen the development of global plans of action for genetic resources in the plant, animal and forest sectors. Implementation of these instruments needs to be stepped up.


                    10. What are the main conclusions of this FAO report on the biodiversity of food and agricultural practices (BFA)?

                      Much of the planet’s biodiversity food and agricultural practices – ecosystems, species and within-species genetic diversity – is being eroded, often at an alarming rate. Urgent action and long-term commitment are needed, both to enhance the multiple contributions that Biodiversity for food and agriculture (BFA)3 makes to sustainable development and to tackle the multiple threats currently driving its loss. While there are many potential means of addressing immediate threats through the adoption of various sustainable management practices and the implementation of conservation measures, these may be neglected or overwhelmed unless there is a political will to address higher-level drivers.

                      It is also essential to build on the opportunities that are emerging as a result of trends such as growing consumer demand for biodiversity-friendly products.

                      At minimum, there is a need to:

                      • Better understand the effects of drivers of change on BFA and take urgent actions to address those that are undermining the sustainability of food and agricultural production;
                      • Improve the monitoring of recognized threats to BFA, such as habitat destruction, pollution, inappropriate use of agricultural inputs, overharvesting, pests, diseases and invasive alien species, and strengthen efforts to reduce them or mitigate their effects;
                      • Promote the use of technologies and management practices that have positive effects on BFA and the supply of ecosystem services;
                      • Implement policies that help to protect biodiversity from the effects of negative drivers and support its sustainable use;
                      • Remove or revise policies that have harmful effects; and
                      • Promote the use of BFA in climate change adaptation and mitigation, in disaster-risk reduction and in addressing other drivers that negatively affect production systems and the supply of ecosystem services.

                      Effective monitoring requires systematic and long-term commitment. The roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders need to be clearly defined. Where they do not currently exist, it may be necessary to establish national bodies to organize or oversee monitoring activities. The sustainable management of BFA, in particular associated biodiversity, is hindered by numerous knowledge gaps often constrained by a lack of coordination between research institutions or between researchers working in different disciplines or in different sectors.

                      On the institutional side, policy and regulatory frameworks may need to be reviewed to assess whether they provide the necessary support to the introduction or upscaling of more sustainable and biodiversity-friendly practices and to identify any ways in which they may operate as constraints. Fuller consultation between policy-makers and a range of stakeholders, including producers, can potentially help to overcome disconnections between political and operational levels.

                      Management interventions often need to extend beyond farm boundaries into the broader landscape or seascape. Attention needs to be paid to maintaining or restoring ecosystems that deliver services to food and agriculture, and conserving the species and genetic diversity that will allow adaptation to changing conditions.

                      Conservation measures for wild foods should also not be neglected. As with other components of BFA, conservation strategies need to be based on a sound understanding of the range of species involved, their distribution, characteristics, uses and risk status.

                      As well as organizing training activities, there is a need to improve access to information e.g. via publications and information systems, and to create opportunities for stakeholders to interact and exchange knowledge and ideas.

                      Consideration also needs to be given to how the international community can more effectively promote synergies in the management of all components of biodiversity, across these sectors and others, in the interests of a more sustainable food and agriculture.


                      Themes covered
                      Publications A-Z

                      Get involved!

                      This summary is free and ad-free, as is all of our content. You can help us remain free and independant as well as to develop new ways to communicate science by becoming a Patron!

                      PatreonBECOME A PATRON!