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Connecting people with nature – Why our food systems need wild biodiversity

food biodiversity

In the second of our series about connecting the wider public with nature, Valerie Payn, Author of An Ecological Gardeners Handbook, looks at why biodiversity is important for our food systems… 

“Think about it for a second: what is the real source of our life? Of our food, our air, our water? Is it the economic system? Of course not: it is our landbase” (Jensen; Endgame. The Problem of Civilization. 2006).

We are living in the age of the Anthropocene.

Human activities have had such far reaching impacts that every ecosystem on Earth has, in some way or another, been affected. Pollution of land and water systems from heavy industry, poor methods of waste disposal, the spread of monoculture, urban sprawl and densification, unsustainable harvesting of natural resources, population growth and, of course, climate change from atmospheric pollution all have dire consequences for all Earth’s ecological systems.

Not just wild things are being lost
Many people associate loss of biodiversity with destruction of wild ecosystems. But the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that over the last 100 years over 75% of the genetic diversity of domestic food plants has been lost because of modern agriculture and plant breeding methods that favours a very limited set of crops.

Only 12 plant species supply 75% of the world’s plant based foods. Only 150 to 200 plants species are widely used for food, yet there are an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 known edible plants in the world.

Only 3 cereal crops, rice, maize and wheat, provide nearly 60% of calories people get from plants.

As the 18C Irish potato famine illustrated, relying so heavily on a highly limited number of crop varieties is a dangerous place to be in for global food security, especially when we are facing unprecedented climate change.

Loss of Wild Biodiversity affects human food security
I am sure you have all heard of Centres of Biodiversity, areas in the world that are incredibly rich in species diversity. What many people don’t know is that these Centres of Biodiversity are not only centres for wild biodiversity, they are also the historical roots, the centres of origin, of most of our domestic food plants.

The reason is simple. Way back in time, when humans began to farm, the original farmers used wild plants for food and for seed. Over time, selective breeding of these favourite plants led to improved varieties that become our domestic food sources. An abundance of wild biodiversity naturally led to more choice of genetic stock for early farmers, which meant they could breed a greater variety of domestic food plants.

So the threat to loss of wild biodiversity, in a very fundamental way, is also a threat to humanities domestic food systems, because plant breeders still rely on genetic stock from those wild and semi-wild cultivars of food plants to breed new domestic varieties. As climate change kicks in, the need to breed new domestic plant varieties that can withstand ever more severe climatic conditions and all that brings, will become ever more urgent. If we lose wild food cultivars, we are significantly reducing our human capacity for adaptation.

Small things matter too
But there is another good reason to protect wild biodiversity. Most of Earth’s biodiversity is found in small and minute creatures, not large animals that so often grab public attention. Many wild creatures are essential to flourishing food systems. Much of the food we eat, including most fruits, vegetables, coffee, sunflower, olive and canola oil, and most nuts depend on pollination from wild pollinators. Wild predators such as birds, predatory insects and small insect eating mammals, help suppress insect pests that could devastate food crops, and a multitude of soil dwelling creatures help produce and maintain healthy soil.

The way that we garden has a profound effect on these smaller life forms. With the right management and approach, gardens can become mini-conservancies for these small and minute forms of biodiversity.

About the Author: Valerie Payn has an MPhil Degree in Sustainable Development Planning and Management (cum laude) through Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute. She is a keen gardener and environmentalist, has worked as a professional landscape designer, consultant and garden writer for many years, and lives on a family run farm in South Africa.

An Ecological Gardeners Handbook is a practical, easy access, science based gardening book that takes a complex systems based approach to landscape design. It draws from many disciplines, including ecological design, organic cultivation, permaculture, agro-ecology, and ecology.

Valerie blogs regularly about sustainable landscaping on LinkedIn. You can find her blog HERE.