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Biodiversity: Key to human health and food security

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Hmong hill tribe women harvest rice in northern Vietnam. Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Cambodia and Laos are in the top 20 of rice producers globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. HOANG DINH NAM/AFP

Biodiversity: Key to human health and food security

Our health depends on the food we eat, while our continuing supply of food relies on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

As the world on Wednesday observes the International Day for Biological Diversity with the theme Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health, the Asean Centre for Biodiversity would like to highlight the importance of a healthy agricultural biodiversity – agrobiodiversity.

Agrobiodiversity covers three areas – genes, species and ecosystems.

The diversity in genes within our plants and animals ensures that plant and animal species continue to survive.

Diversity among species ensures that the variety of food we eat meets our nutritional needs.

Good and balanced nutrition come from eating a variety of food species.

The diversity in ecosystems, which provide a goods and services from nature, ensures health and survival of our food species.

Today, we have access to a greater quantity of food, whether we are in Phnom Penh, Manila, Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), agricultural output has increased over 160 per cent since the 1960s, while the world’s population has more than doubled.

However, the FAO has warned that there are trade-offs in increasing food production, primarily the degradation of ecosystems due to unsustainable agricultural practices such as monocropping and the excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers, among others.

Agrobiodiversity disappearing

According to the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), in the past 100 years, more than 90 per cent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields.

Half of the breeds of many domestic animals have been lost, and all of the world’s 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits.

The SCBD further reported that locally varied food production systems are under threat, including related indigenous, traditional and local knowledge.

With this decline, agrobiodiversity is disappearing, including essential knowledge of traditional medicine and local foods.

The loss of diverse diets is directly linked to diseases and health risk factors such as diabetes, obesity and malnutrition, and has a direct impact on the availability of traditional medicines.

Today, our diet as a whole has less variety. Clearly, we may have a greater quantity of food but we are losing food diversity, which is key to balanced nutrition.

Amid these challenges, the 10 Asean member states – Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – with support from the Asean Centre for Biodiversity, are working at the national and regional levels to ensure that agricultural biodiversity is protected and maintained in the Asean region.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, for example, the government is supporting farmers who are maintaining diverse crop species and varieties.

The farmers are aware that raising mixed crops increases the number of pollinators, decreases the infestation of pests, diseases and weeds, and increases the population of large earthworms that increase soil fertility.

Just recently, from May 16-19, the Philippines hosted on the island of Marinduque a conference on how bees can be protected from systemic pesticides.

We are all aware that bees and other pollinators ensure the continuous reproduction of many important crops and plants for both humans and thousands of animal species.

At the regional level, Asean has a Strategic Plan of Action on Cooperation in Food, Agriculture and Forestry, which incorporates policies on agrobiodiversity.

Asean also has regional guidelines on Food Security and Nutrition Policy covering food security and nutrition, including agrobiodiversity.

The Asean region has several major agro-ecosystems that include crop-based production areas for rice, corn, vegetables, coconut, mango, oil palm, banana and pineapple, to name a few.

The second edition of the Asean Biodiversity Outlook, a publication by the Asean Centre for Biodiversity, reported that in 2014, the region produced 210 million tonnes of rice and 41 million tonnes of corn.

Committed

According to the FAO, seven Asean member states – Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Cambodia and Laos – are in the top 20 of rice producers globally.

Asean member states are working together to sustain their contribution to the world’s food security.

To ensure that biodiversity is conserved while producing sustainable agri-products, the Asean Centre for Biodiversity and selected sites in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have piloted biodiversity-based products as an Economic Source for the improvement of Livelihoods and Biodiversity Protection Project, implemented in partnership with Germany.

Using a value chain promotion approach, the project promotes the use of biodiversity-based products for livelihood and bio-diversity conservation.

As parties to the CBD, the Asean member states are committed to the conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity and ecosystem services.

They support the CBD initiatives on pollinators, soil biodiversity, and food and nutrition, as well as the ecosystem conservation approach for the integrated management of land, water and living resources, a strategy that promotes sustainable agricultural systems.

As we join the global community in celebrating the International Day for Biological Diversity, let us take the opportunity to promote sustainable agricultural systems to conserve our biodiversity and ensure that we will be able to feed the world, maintain agricultural livelihoods and enhance human health, thus ensuring wellness and survival this century and beyond.

Dr Theresa Mundita S Lim is the Executive Director of the Asean Centre for Biodiversity.

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