Wednesday, 07 June 2017 00:00

Canadian Policy Reviews are Chances to Bolster Crop Diversity

Food security and biodiversity begin on the farm.


Farmers in Mali winnowing the chaff for this season's rice. Farms across the world that are making an effort to diversify their crops and reduce reliance on chemical aids are having success. (Photo: Sarah Dalle/USC Canada)

FIRST PUBLISHED by Hill Times: Wednesday, June 7, 2017 12:00 AM. See original article here.

By Emile Frison and Faris Ahmed

The recent news about a leak in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault brought renewed attention to the very real threats facing our food supply. This seed bank protects a million seed varieties, providing a valuable contingency plan in the face of climate change and other emerging threats to global agriculture. Securing this site is therefore essential.

The incident offered a powerful analogy for the fragile state of our food systems. Globally we have placed our eggs in one basket, by choosing mass production of uniform commodities in industrial food and farming systems, and the widespread erosion of plant and species diversity. This diversity is the best insurance policy we have. It must be urgently protected at all levels, including on the farm.

No country can outsource this task to others, or to a global seed vault. With International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau poised to release Canada's new international assistance policy, and with consultations on developing a national food policy now underway, Canada has a huge opportunity to address this challenge head-on.

What is required is a complete transition in global food systems. Beyond the challenges of climate change, our food system itself is part of the problem. In less than 100 years, it has led to the loss of most of our crop diversity, and many of our pollinators are now at risk. We have a food system that contributes almost one third of our greenhouse gas emissions, degrades our land, pollutes water and ecosystems, and is largely responsible for the rapid rise of diet-related disease.

In many regions of the world, productivity is also plateauing. A 2012 meta-study found that over recent decades yields failed to improve, stagnated after initial gains, or collapsed in 24-39 per cent of areas growing major crops — including maize, rice, wheat, and soybean. Moreover, 210 species of weeds have become herbicide resistant as a result of intensive chemical use.

However, the solutions are already out there. Around the world, farmers are rejecting chemical-intensive monocultures. Instead they are diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing synthetic chemical inputs, and optimizing biodiversity. They're doing it to build long-term soil fertility, have stable yields over time, support biodiversity, restore degraded lands, and secure their livelihoods. The latest evidence reviewed by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems suggests that these diversified agroecological systems are succeeding where current systems are failing, and performing particularly well under environmental stresses.

Keeping biodiversity in the hands of farmers is therefore a crucial building block, as shown by USC Canada's three decades of work with farmers in the global south and in Canada through the Seeds of Survival program. Farmers, as plant breeders — many of whom are indigenous peoples, women, and youth — are growing biodiversity in their fields, and strengthening the resilience of their food and ecosystems, able to better withstand climate shocks, while feeding their families and providing livelihoods for their communities.

Their seed banks, seed libraries, and seed exchanges are making sure that genetic diversity remains alive. In Ethiopia, they're doing it by breeding and conserving more than 70 farmers' varieties of sorghum; in Honduras, more than 200 varieties of beans; in West Africa and South Asia, local varieties of millet. And in Canada, farmers are breeding organic wheat varieties that grow well in low-input environments, are competitive on yields, show greater early vigour and disease resistance, and taste great.

This transformation is happening across our food system. It's being led by young farmers, chefs, biodiversity gardens, school meal programs, and institutional purchasers like universities, hospitals, and municipalities.

However, what's largely missing is a national vision — the policy support and incentives from national governments to unblock the barriers that are preventing us from moving more quickly towards a viable food future. With the opportunity to think about Canada's national and international food and climate policies, here's the moment for Canada to step up to the plate.

Emile Frison is the former director general of Bioversity International, and serves on the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. He will be in Ottawa June 5-9.

Faris Ahmed is Policy Director at USC Canada.

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