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What is Biodiversity?

It’s the variety of life on earth and the complex essential relationships between all parts of the natural world: From the thousands of varieties of plants and food crops on the land, to countless species of animals, insects and aquatic life, to the microbes in our soils.

Download our Fact Sheet on Agricultural Biodiversity in English or in French


Why is Biodiversity so Important?

Because it’s the earth’s life-support system – and our world’s food supply depends on it.

It’s also nature’s brilliant insurance policy against disaster. Variety spreads risk. It’s that simple. If something fails, there’s a back-up plan. And what a back-up plan we have in Biodiversity!



A Few Figures…
    • About 75% of food biodiversity was lost in the 20th century1.
    • We continue to lose biodiversity at the rate of 2% every year.
    • Today 80% of the world’s dietary energy is supplied by just 12 industrial crops!2

And on a more positive note…

  • A study in 2000 showed that planting multiple rice varieties in one field in China increased yields by 89%, largely because of a 94% drop in the incidence of disease that made pesticides redundant.3


What’s Happening to Crop Variety?

Biodiversity might be nature’s safety net, but it won’t be there to catch us if we don’t protect it. The fragile balance of the Earth is already at serious risk, as never before, because of human activities.

A decade ago, the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals to end Poverty by 2015. To that end, Goal#7 was written to “Ensure Environmental Sustainability”. The UN has reported this year, however, that we are far behind in meeting that goal:

“The world has missed the 2010 target to slow the decline in biodiversity. Nearly 17,000 species of plants and animals are currently at risk of extinction, and the number of species threatened by extinction is growing by the day. Despite increased investment, the main causes of biodiversity loss – high rates of consumption, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and climate change – are not being sufficiently addressed. Biodiversity is vitally important; billions of people rely directly on diverse species for their livelihoods and often survival.

Deforestation rates have slowed, but remain fastest in some of the world’s most biologically diverse regions…South America and Africa continue to show the largest net losses of forests.”

What does Agricultural Biodiversity Look Like?

Farmers need to grow many different kinds of food crops to provide a varied and complete diet. But just as important, agricultural biodiversity also means a wide range of varieties within the same kind of crop. Each different variety carries a unique family of particular genetic traits.

The Andes is the centre of origin for the world’s potatoes and, since it holds an invaluable wellspring of potato genetic material, it’s the perfect place to find an example of this diversity within one type of crop. It’s easy to glimpse the biodiversity in this handful of potatoes displayed by Bolivian farmer Natividad Colque (right). Each one of these varieties has unique qualities, uses, nutritional content and taste.

Some potatoes are best for boiling, some for baking. Some resist frost or pests. Others grow well in different soils. Each variety is uniquely adapted to their particular environment and ecosystem.

Hungry for More?

The United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity to help draw attention not only to the significant role it plays in our lives and our future, but also to the alarming trends in biodiversity loss over the last decades. As a result, there are plenty of resources online to help you learn more about biodiversity. Here are just a few:

Global Insurance Policy

We might not be drinking much beer today if it wasn’t for Ethiopian farmers. Back in the 1980s, a barley virus threatened the survival of the large and lucrative North American beer industry. The few varieties of barley being planted here weren’t resistant to yellow dwarf – a virus with the potential to destroy entire crops worldwide.

By going back to Ethiopia – where peasant farmers safeguard the largest barley diversity in the whole world – North American researchers were able to find a virus-resistant gene in a heritage barley variety, bringing it back to North America to rescue the industry. So, cheers to Ethiopian farmers and the power of Biodiversity!

  • The Seed Map: Food, Farmers, and Climate Chaos is a teaching tool that shows the state of global agro-biodiversity today. It identifies key threats to the world’s seed and biodiversity systems, particularly the impact of climate change, and highlights regions where institutions and peoples’ movements are working to preserve agricultural biodiversity.
  • Banking Diversity – a short video by USC Canada – looks at how farmers the world over are safeguarding the Seeds of our Survival.
  • The Power of Seeds – Part of USC’s Story of Food – looks at how small-scale farmers are already doing their part to save biodiversity.
  • The UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 report – either the full report (10MB) or the summary (2MB) – offers a useful summary of the challenges ahead.
  • The International Convention on Biodiversity provides a wealth of information including country information and international policy initiatives.
  • Canadian Biodiversity – McGill University provides a Canadian overview and perspectives.
  • Global Biodiversity Outlook is the flagship publication of the Convention on Biological Diversity and summarizes the latest data on status and trends of biodiversity, drawing conclusions for the future strategy of the Convention.
  • The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reports explore the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being, providing scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide, as well as the scientific basis for action to conserve and use them sustainably.
  • The United Nations declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity, and the official website has a host of valuable documents and resources with more information.

1 UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

2 ETC Group, Who Will Feed Us?

3 Nature 406, 718-722 (17 August 2000)

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