Putting agrobiodiversity at the centre of Africa’s food systems transformation

The new Diversity Assessment Tool for Agrobiodiversity and Resilience (DATAR) web portal and app, developed by Bioversity International, will help RFS communities make better decisions about how to conserve and restore agrobiodiversity in smallholder food systems.

Reconciling agriculture and biodiversity in the global agenda

Biodiversity has been a hot topic in 2021. Dubbed a “super year for nature” by world leaders and climate activists, 2020 was meant to see several global climate conferences, including the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP15). However, 2020 had other plans - the “super year” was rescheduled.

Now, in 2021, biodiversity buzz has been building ahead of CBD COP15, which, after being rescheduled to October 2021, has been postponed again to 2022. Discussions leading up to CBD COP15 have focused on preparations for the adoption of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, a document that sets out an ambitious plan to transform society’s relationship with biodiversity by 2050.

Many discussions leading up to COP15, including the recent dialogue hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on the role of food and agriculture in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, have focused on placing biodiversity at the core of work being done to promote sustainable food systems.

Today, three staple crops – rice, maize and wheat – account for more than 50% of the plant-derived calories consumed globally. Green revolution agriculture and the globalisation of food systems have led to the rapid decline of agrobiodiversity. In Africa, subsidies and incentive schemes put in place by governments to stimulate the production of staple crops have crowded out nutritious and climate-resilient local crop varieties.

There is a growing recognition – evident in the discussions surrounding COP15 – that past approaches to boosting agriculture production have come up short. Much of the improvements in yields have been due to the expansion of agricultural land (at the expense of Africa’s forests) rather than gains in efficiency and effectiveness of production systems. Biodiversity has taken a hit, leaving Africa’s farms less equipped to meet the food security and nutrition needs of a rapidly growing population in the context of a changing climate.

A new approach to integrating biodiversity conservation into food systems

The Resilient Food Systems (RFS) programme was born out of the recognition that integrated approaches to building sustainable food systems, ones that take into account biodiversity – along with the dimensions of climate change resilience, the sustainable use of natural resources and profitable and sustainable livelihood opportunities – are needed to overcome the shortcomings of the silo-ed approaches of the past.

RFS Regional Hub partner Bioversity International and the Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research (PAR) have been working with RFS country projects to monitor existing levels of agrobiodiversity, track improvements and situate biodiversity conservation within the broader community goals, such as increasing productivity, improving crop diversity and improving gender equity in the agriculture sector.

“By gathering information on agricultural biodiversity at the farm and community-levels and making it easily accessible, we hope to improve the capacity of local and national decision-makers,” said Dr Devra Jarvis, Principal Scientist at Bioversity International and Coordinator of PAR. “The ultimate goal is to equip decision-makers with the information needed to better integrate the use of local varieties and livestock breeds into their development programmes.”

To help communities and farmers monitor and track agrobiodiversity, PAR, together with the support of Bioversity International, created the Diversity Assessment Tool for Agrobiodiversity and Resilience (DATAR). DATAR is a new open-source pilot software platform with a web interface, the DATAR Web Portal, and an Android app that will allow the integration of diverse crop varieties, livestock breeds, and aquatic farmed-types into decision-making plans.

 DATAR is being used by RFS national researchers, development workers, environmentalists, policymakers and local communities to collect information on local crop varieties and livestock breeds. The web portal is a database that provides information at different spatial scales on (a) the functional traits of crop varieties and livestock breeds; (b) management practices; (c) who is providing seeds and breeds; and (d) how this information is related to national, market and policy constraints.  

While the DATAR tool is already being used by the RFS country project in Burundi, the web portal and app, launched in June, mark a new advancement that will help PAR reach more communities in more countries. PAR kicked off the virtual training for the tool in Malawi in July and will roll out the training to six other countries – Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Kenya – over the course of this year.

Connecting the dots: helping farmers in Malawi make the link between biodiversity conservation and productivity 

Smallholder farmers constitute 80% of the population in Malawi where most farmers grow maize, regardless of land suitability. The lack of agrobiodiversity has not only led to a widespread loss in soil fertility but has increased the food system’s vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather events, like droughts and floods.

In a country where food security is very much defined by the relative success or failure of the maize crop that year, re-introducing diversity into the food system has become a top priority.

To support the project’s focus on restoring agrobiodiversity and improving smallholder productivity, PAR was invited to introduce the DATAR app to the country project team at a 3-day virtual training event in July.

Forty-six participants attended the event. By the end of the session, trainees were comfortable with inputting data into the app, conducting focus group discussions and household surveys (the two primary means of collecting data), and viewing and analysing the results.

Overall, the training helped the project team understand how to use the DATAR app to assess whether the current level and makeup of agrobiodiversity on the ground is suitable for reaching farmer and community goals. Use of the tool will help the team identify current constraints to biodiversity growth and potential interventions for reintroducing and conserving indigenous crops that are becoming harder and harder to find.

By the end of the training, participants were eager to use the app in the field. Over the next few months, the Malawi project will collect data from four districts and analyse the data with the help of a follow up training event on statistical analysis. Ongoing support from DATAR developers will help the project team use the app to make better decisions about using and managing crop and animal genetic diversity to reach their goals.

“Decisions surrounding agricultural development and climate resilience planning usually stop at the species level – farmers decide which crop or which animal is best suited to their environment,” said Dr Jarvis. “But DATAR goes one step further. It helps communities preserve and harness the power of intra-species agrobiodiversity.”

This level of analysis is critical to feed and restore our planet. By mainstreaming these considerations at the farm-level, PAR hopes to shine a spotlight on the tremendous importance of agrobiodiversity and the crucial role that smallholder farmers will continue to play in protecting that diversity for current and future generations.



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