Award-winning tool leverages agrobiodiversity for sustainable food systems

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    CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains
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The food system is at the center of multiple challenges that we’re facing. This includes the biodiversity crisis, the climate crisis, the malnutrition crisis, and a crisis of growing inequity. Within the food system, the entire supply chain depends on agrobiodiversity – the plants, animals, and microorganisms that support food and agriculture – and we’re not paying attention to its importance. We need to do more to eat it, use it, and save it in ways that catalyze the transition to a sustainable food system.” – Sarah Jones, co-creator of the Agrobiodiversity Index

The world has seen large investments and widespread actions aimed at halting human-induced climate change over the last few decades, while a relatively small amount of attention and funding has been given to halting biodiversity loss. Within this, finance and policies to halt the loss of agrobiodiversity remains almost completely neglected, even though this biodiversity is also being lost at an alarming rate.

Globally, there are more than 6,000 species of edible plants, yet just nine of these account for two-thirds of our crop production. Similarly, our livestock systems include 38 domesticated animal species, and nearly 9,000 breeds, yet a handful of these breeds dominate food systems, and 90% of domesticated breeds are considered to be at risk of extinction. And pollinators – which support fruit, vegetable, and biofuel production – are declining in multiple regions around the world due to habitat loss, pollution, and climate change.

A framework for food system transformation

We all depend on agrobiodiversity for healthy diets and to ensure our agricultural production systems are sustainable and resilient. However, with no means to effectively measure and assess agrobiodiversity, it is virtually impossible to incorporate it into food and environment policies, dietary guidelines, and business plans.

Recognizing this gap, researchers from the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (Alliance BI-CIAT) developed the Agrobiodiversity Index, through funding from the European Union, Italian government, the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, and the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains. The index sets out a framework for how agrobiodiversity in our food system can be measured, enabling users to understand whether there is scope to increase agrobiodiversity to contribute to sustainability goals.

The Agrobiodiversity Index recognizes that agrobiodiversity and therefore food system sustainability outcomes are affected by what we eat, how we produce it, and what we conserve to support future production. The index captures this interconnectedness by incorporating measures of agrobiodiversity in consumption (e.g. human diets, food markets), production (e.g. in fields, farms, landscapes), and conservation (e.g. on-farm, in gene banks, botanical gardens, protected areas), representing the three key pillars of our food system. Agrobiodiversity within these pillars is measured through 22 indicators, aggregated to create a series of scores to compare agrobiodiversity in food systems around the world.

Crucially, unlike most biodiversity tools, the Agrobiodiversity Index is not just about conserving biodiversity – it’s also about how to make better use of it to help achieve sustainable food systems. The index is designed to highlight how agrobiodiversity can be better used to help achieve healthy diets; establish food production systems that are resistant to climate change, pests and diseases, and soil degradation, and that are productive and profitable; and safeguard genetic resources supporting food and agriculture.

“Sustainable agrobiodiversity use is not just about what you do directly to conserve agrobiodiversity, like safeguarding a species or creating a pollinator-friendly habitat,” explains Sarah Jones, a scientist at Alliance BI-CIAT who co-created the Agrobiodiversity Index. “It’s also about the supportive practices that you can introduce. Things like water saving technologies, or reduced tillage that help conserve soil biodiversity, or publishing dietary guidelines that promote locally produced, climate-adapted varieties and breeds, because these have knock-on effects for agrobiodiversity. We try and take a holistic view of how you solve a problem, rather than just focusing on one pathway.”

Farmers evaluating sesame crop in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. Photo by Jai Rana/Alliance BI-CIAT.

Downscaling for greater impact

While the Agrobiodiversity Index has been applied at national and supply chain levels, NEXUS Gains is funding work to downscale it through an agrobiodiversity solution hotspot tool, which is being piloted in India’s Ganges Basin. The tool draws on spatially-explicit, high resolution agrobiodiversity maps, overlaid onto maps of food production threats that agrobiodiversity can help address (e.g. water stress, soil degradation, pollinator-constrained yields). This highlights places where increasing agrobiodiversity can reduce specific or multiple threats – called ‘agrobiodiversity solution hotspots’. These maps are refined, based on local stakeholder knowledge and concerns, to identify priority locations and strategies to enhance agrobiodiversity in line with local capacities and priorities. Analyzing how scores vary across districts or villages, at a scale of 1 km2 where possible, reveals opportunities to increase agrobiodiversity which may not necessarily be evident at a national level.

As part of NEXUS Gains, the Agrobiodiversity Index India team is working with researchers at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to standardize the way in which agrobiodiversity data are collected by ICAR researchers and government ministries. Working bureau by bureau – from fish to crops – the researchers are adding each data set to the tool and layering these with existing spatial databases to test different analysis options. In this way, the tool’s development engenders greater collaboration between bureaus and – using a systems approach – seeks to jointly identify agrobiodiversity-based solutions that meet cross-sector needs.

This granular level of analysis enables much clearer dialogue with landscape-level decision makers, says Sarah. “A lack of trees in agricultural landscapes could have implications for climate mitigation goals, local resilience to climate change, year-round food access, or natural pest and disease controls. Local priorities will influence which aspects of agrobiodiversity decision makers are most interested in.”

The global datasets used in the Agrobiodiversity Index to date allow for worldwide analysis, yet these can be too coarse or incomplete; the additional local knowledge that can be applied through the hotspot tool is priceless. Downscaling the index allows governments and other stakeholders to see how accurate their data are and where additional agrobiodiversity monitoring would be beneficial to close gaps, and provides a starting point for agrobiodiversity-based intervention planning.

Farmers participating in varietal selection trials in Maharashtra, India. Photo by Jai Rana/Alliance BI-CIAT.

An award-winning solution

In June 2023, the Agrobiodiversity Index won the Food Planet Prize. This was significant not just in recognizing the pioneering work of Sarah and her colleagues, but also in shining a much-needed spotlight on agrobiodiversity. “We’re very grateful to the Food Planet Prize Foundation for offering this opportunity to take the work further, because often agrobiodiversity is buried at the bottom of the priority pile in both research and policy circles,” notes Sarah. “They’ve lifted us up and given us a chance to amplify our efforts to improve the way that agrobiodiversity is accounted for in food system and biodiversity conservation decision making. And that’s huge.”

The Food Planet Prize funding will be used to help the Agrobiodiversity Index team achieve their long-term goal to ensure the importance and contribution of agrobiodiversity to food system sustainability is recognised and valued in private and public decision making. Part of the prize funds will be coupled with NEXUS Gains funding to co-design agrobiodiversity-based interventions in other locations around the world, starting with Ethiopia and Peru, using the hotspot tool and other approaches tailored to each context.

Follow the latest Agrobiodiversity Index updates here:

Sarah Jones co-created the Agrobiodiversity Index with Roseline Remans (Director, GlocoLearning) and Ehsan Dulloo (Honorory Researcher, Alliance BI-CIAT), and co-leads the NEXUS Gains-funded Agrobiodiversity Index innovation with Natalia Estrada-Carmona (Scientist, Alliance BI-CIAT).

The Agrobiodiversity Index India team is led by Jai Rana and Sunayana Sharma at Alliance BI-CIAT.


Header image: Woman selling farm produce in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh India. Photo by Jai Rana/Alliance BI-CIAT.

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