Agricultural Biodiversity Under Threat Worldwide — Dare to Know

Agricultural biodiversity is being disrupted as family farms give way to factory farms around the world. Find out how this threatens future generations.

I was born on a farm. That’s always shaped the way I think about food even though, like most of our neighbours, our family gave up farm living back in the 1960s.

There were about 430,000 farms in Canada the year we moved to town. Today, Canada’s farming system has fewer than 200,000. Our farm had a land area of 100 acres, which was pretty standard for that time in our part of the country. Today, an average farm covers more like 800 acres.

A typical dairy farm like ours milked between 10 and 20 cows and farmers chose from a range of breeds. We had Ayrshires, for example, and others had Jerseys, Brown Swiss, Guernseys or Shorthorns.

Today, an average Canadian dairy farm’s production systems manage herds of around 70 cattle. In western Canada, it’s more like 100. Dairy cattle are almost all Holsteins now. So much for agricultural biodiversity.

There are about 25% fewer farmers in Canada today than just twenty years ago. The age of the average farmer in Canada today has risen to 55.

That average gradually gets older every year and most farmers aren’t planning to hand the farm down to the next generation. About 44% of farmers work other jobs, often full time, to make ends meet.

Farmers face agricultural biodiversity issues all over the world. This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is hosting a meeting of the Convention of Biodiversity (CBD) in Rome. Anything involving the UN always involves lots of acronyms!

The FAO’s Executive Director, Qu Dongyu, opened the meeting by saying that food production is “at the heart of the concept of sustainable development.” He also pointed out that we’re going to have to stretch our global agricultural ecosystems to feed a world population of at least 9 billion people by 2050.

He explained why the FAO is getting so involved in biodiversity challenges by saying, “Biodiversity is fundamental for ecosystems, for human beings, and is the basis of food diversity.” He also talked about the FAO’s gains around agricultural biodiversity including reports like T he State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture.

The report points out just how much our agriculture and food are losing vital components of biological diversity. For instance, agricultural biodiversity has blessed us with more than 6,000 plant species that we could grow as crops.

Yet, about two-thirds of our food comes from only nine of them. This means we no longer benefit from all the plant genetic resources we could be drawing from.

Around the world, there are 7,745 local breeds of livestock that people can use for agricultural production. All but about 7% of them are risking extinction as the agriculture sector fixates on a handful of breeds like all the Holsteins around here, instead of maintaining our heritage of agricultural biodiversity.

In our oceans, we overfish about one-third of our fish stocks and we’ve maxed out another 60%. That makes 93% of the fishery.

At the same time, we’ve put about one-third of our freshwater fish at risk. About 24% of the wild plants we use for food are now growing scarce in countries worldwide.

Food and farming are also dealing with obstacles from changes in land-use. On top of that, there’s pollution, overusing and over-harvesting natural resources and the spread of invasive species.

The family farm stopped being a way of life for my family and practically all of our neighbours. The report talks about the loss of similar traditional lifestyles all over the world as agricultural biodiversity declines.

Culture loss comes as the population grows, we move into urban areas and corporations industrialize both agriculture and post-harvest food processing. What’s worse, we lose track of traditional knowledge.

Skills preserved by passing down a mixed, family farm from one generation to the next are disappearing. That’s not good for our food and livelihood security in the long run.

All of these factors reduce the variety and variability of our global food system. As we’ve abandoned agricultural biodiversity, we’ve ended up with fewer and fewer genetic resources for food.

The report mentions that some agricultural diversity-friendly practices are catching on here and there. The trouble is, they’re not being managed or tracked very well so it’s hard to say how much real change they’re making.

The biggest puzzles for conservation and sustainable agriculture are managing our land and water use. Agro-ecosystems help moderate the climate, absorb pollutants from the air and water and keep the soil fertile.

Traditional mixed farms supported animals, plants and micro-organisms because their habitats, including crops, were varied. When we get heavy-handed and force our industrial mechanics onto these ecosystem services, we defeat the purpose of the sustainable agriculture practices preserved by folk cultures.

We’re facing these challenges to agricultural biodiversity while nutrition and health are facing what the FAO in another report calls a “triple burden.” In The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges, we read that countries are coping with epidemics of undernutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and, ironically, obesity all at the same time.

Mercifully, we don’t have the scale of undernutrition we had in the third world when I was young. Even so, about 800 million people still go hungry every day and about half of the infant deaths worldwide are from being undernourished.

Undernutrition is still stunting the growth of far too many kids, especially in Africa. Stunting comes from not getting enough food as a child and doctors can’t reverse it later on.

Stunting isn’t just a matter of being small for your age. If it happens before you’re two years old, it also keeps you from thinking and learning properly at school later on.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies affect about 2 billion people around the world. A huge problem here is women not getting enough iron and becoming anemic.

About 50,000 women die in childbirth every year because they don’t have enough iron in their blood. There are also far too many childhood deaths and diseases from shortages of Vitamin A, iodine and zinc.

Paradoxically, while vulnerable populations starve, the lack of agricultural biodiversity has led to about 40% of people in urban centres being overweight or obese. It’s causing an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Even worse, doctors see more and more kids with these adult chronic conditions.

Nature revolves around food. Ecology looks mainly at the relationships between species based on the idea of a food web.

Our sun provides the energy that plants combine with soil and water to convert energy into organic matter. Herbivores eat the plants and carnivores eat the herbivores.

When the carnivores die, scavengers and microbes eat them. They return to the soil and the plants take their nutrients back again to blend with water and sunshine. It’s the circle of life.

Food ethics will be an enormous challenge for our future and generations to come. We’ve trying to impose our own preconceived ideas about artificial production, efficiency and industry onto the natural cycle of food.

The most morally grotesque manifestation of turning our backs on agricultural biodiversity while imposing mechanized uniformity is the so-called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) or factory farm.

Farmers of my dad’s generation used to joke about someone pulling on the sprouts in the field to get the plants to grow faster. We’ve reached a point in our alienation from nature where we seem to think we can really do something along those lines.

Some people think that all we need to feed the world are enough cages, chemicals and heavy machinery. We need to learn new ways to adapt to the flow of nature instead.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture
The Future of World Agriculture: Trends and Challenges
Food Ethics: An Embarrassment of Choices
Soil Biodiversity Now Tracked Globally
Starchy Plants Cooked 170,000 Years Ago
Finding New Ways to Share the Land

Originally published at on February 26, 2020.



I write for those who find meaning in discoveries about space, living things, and humanity. I also write content marketing stories for select B2B clients.

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David Morton Rintoul

I write for those who find meaning in discoveries about space, living things, and humanity. I also write content marketing stories for select B2B clients.