A tough puzzle: Biodiversity and NRM

Peter Neuenschwander, p.neuenschwander@cgiar.org


In the past, natural resources management covered approximately half of all activities and funds of IITA and similar institutes in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Most often, it did not include the conservation of wild biodiversity. The other half of funds and personnel were allotted to crop plant biodiversity, mainly the varieties available worldwide in genebanks. Increasingly, however, farmers’ varieties and wild relatives of crop plants became important and the biodiversity of pathogens and witchweed were investigated in view of their use for resistance breeding.

Thanks to new technologies, breeding barriers between species could be overcome and foreign genetic material was incorporated into so-called “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs). These are being tested at a relatively small scale in some African countries. They are the source of real worries and polemical distortions, while countries such as the USA, China, Argentina, Brazil, and India have chosen to grow some GMOs on vast areas. Today, GMOs are at the center of a heated debate in an unnecessarily antagonistic manner, pitting the ideals of biodiversity conservation against the need to feed the world.

Since the end of the 1980s, the importance of biodiversity in general for a sustainable future of Planet Earth has been increasingly publicized. At the Rio Conference in 1990, global warming and the loss of biodiversity were singled out as the two most important issues facing mankind. The climate conference in Copenhagen last year was supposed to reach goals on halting and mitigating climate change. The conference is generally considered to have been a failure; nevertheless, great efforts to avoid a climatic disaster are being taken by many governments, even without the wished-for strict regulations.

And here we are in 2010, the “International Year of Biodiversity”. International nongovernmental organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), BirdLife International, and many others are highly active in conservation and their efforts are showing successes. Most countries have subscribed to their ethics, signed the international treaties, and established focal points for the Convention of Biodiversity. For the CGIAR, though, biodiversity conservation mostly remains germplasm conservation. It is the world leader in the conservation of genetic material of crop plants and their wild relatives (for instance, yam and cowpea, of particular interest in West Africa). It is instrumental in the development of rules and regulations about the ownership of germplasm under the umbrella of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Meristem excision under aseptic conditions (laminar flow workstation) using stereomicroscope, IITA genebank. Photo by IITA.
Meristem excision under aseptic conditions (laminar flow workstation) using stereomicroscope, IITA genebank. Photo by IITA.

IITA is also co-developing best practices and tool kits for collecting germplasm and houses important pathogen collections. Generally though, conservation of other forms of biodiversity is treated rather timidly. The general antagonism between agriculture and nature conservation thus persists. Yet, it probably need not be so: In 2001, IUCN and Future Harvest came together to publish a policy paper outlining ‘The common ground and common future, how eco-agriculture can help feed the world and save wild biodiversity’. While some of the claims might be overwrought, enough is known to allow progress towards the twin goals of saving the bulk of biodiversity while feeding the human population.

Insects are the majority of all described species. On a worldwide level, BioNET INTERNATIONAL organizes and stimulates the coordination of taxonomic research (of all taxa, but with special emphasis on insects). The IITA biodiversity collection of insects, housed in IITA-Bénin, serves as the network center for West and Central Africa. This collection, the largest in the CGIAR, is instrumental in providing basic information about the biodiversity of natural enemies used in all types of biological control.

In addition, the insectary at IITA-Bénin houses numerous live beneficial insects and mites. IITA-Bénin can respond to the changing situations of ever more invading insects and mites. Thus, in the last few years and in West Africa alone, we have seen the invasion and sometimes the control of spiraling whitefly, a new invading fruit fly (Sri Lanka fruit fly), and very recently the papaya mealybug. Last year, when the cassava mealybug invaded Thailand, IITA was able to provide effective parasitoids without delay.

Many more natural enemies are out there in the wild, suppressing their hosts or their prey. Most concern agricultural pests, but increasingly, conservation biological control is becoming important to save natural habitats from invaders. IITA is participating in these international efforts through its biological control of floating water weeds across Africa.

To assess the elusive so-called “ecosystem services”, sophisticated biodiversity studies are required. IITA’s historic classical biological control projects were against cassava and mango mealybug and cassava green mite, three formidable agricultural pests. The first two were not even known to science before they appeared in new habitats. These examples from South America and India illustrate how the ‘ecosystem services’ provided by pests’ natural enemies in the home environments remain hidden until harmful insects and mites get dissociated from their predators. Important services are also provided by microbials and pollinators, but these become visible to farmers and policymakers only when their function is impaired. Examples are lack of conservation because of wanton destruction or by bad agricultural practices, such as those that lead to the depletion of nutrients in soils or the destruction of suppressive soils.

Researcher monitoring cowpea seeds kept in cold storage room in the IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.
Researcher monitoring cowpea seeds kept in cold storage room in the IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.

The contribution to sustainable agriculture and conservation that IITA can make is by improving the tools (GIS, sociological, etc.) and by significant advances in research and its application to real world needs. We can thus establish an intellectual agenda for discussion and change within IITA, collaborating organizations, and society at large. Comparing this claim for action with the actual situation at IITA, we find that traditional biodiversity conservation in the form of crop plant germplasm is rather well implemented; but the conservation of nonplant biodiversity is weakly institutionalized and would need better support. Natural resources management offers the intellectual platform to integrate the different disciplines in a sustainable manner. Unfortunately, the inclusion of all biodiversity activities in a holistic natural resources management remains a dream.

Within the period of 20 years, biodiversity conservation has moved from being a specialized field to becoming an urgent task to be carried out before it is too late and extinction takes away the organisms we might one day have to rely on for survival. Even where we do not completely understand the benefits of biodiversity in providing stability to ecosystems, conservation should be implemented for the good of future generations. Apart from research, this also takes the form of providing refuges for biodiversity for future studies, as is the case with the IITA-Ibadan forest or the rehabilitated forest at Drabo Gbo in Bénin. Our national partners have many more examples; they might cherish our leadership in this matter.

6 thoughts on “A tough puzzle: Biodiversity and NRM

  1. Thank goodness that there are biodiversity organizations working to save us from self destruction. The long term effects of GM crops really bothers me and there needs to be more awareness of the dangers of GM before we pass the point of no return.

    Seed banks sound like a great idea but what happens when you try to reintroduce natural seeds into a GM modified environment? Will we reach the point where we have to grow crops in greenhouses to get the separation required to avoid contamination.

    I agree that biodiversity conservation has become an urgent task. The general public must be made more aware of the need for biodiversity in our ecosystems, and the possible long term consequences of GM crops on ecosystems.

    If we keep heading in the current direction we are doomed to experience massive famines that will kill millions of people. This is not the future I want.

  2. For some of us it always boils down to Ethics
    1. Violation of natural organisms’ intrinsic values
    2. Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species
    3. Objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa
    4. Stress for animal

    and Safety:

    1. Potential human health impacts, including allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, unknown effects
    2. Potential environmental impacts, including: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity

    Cathy Eckhardt
    100 percent winners

  3. Hey Peter, thanks for this detailed article. Really opens my insights. Voted.


    I have to agree with you on this. Lots of people are ignoring this small yet important fact and it’s gonna be hard to correct as time drags. – But it’s hard to create public awareness for the need for biodiversity in our ecosystems. I’ve pointed a couple of my colleagues to this article but I doubt it’ll help them anyways.

    Mark Derulo
    Wichita, KS

  4. The “needs” of the people in general is yes, dramatically increasing as the population multiplies drastically. I agree that focus on biodiversity and sustainability projects should be given the utmost importance and priority. It’s good that research had paved way for solutions such as GMO but the people should be given proper education as well. Same as Robert had commented above, “what happens when you try to reintroduce natural seeds into a GM modified environment?” In the long run, that is what disturbs me most.

  5. I think we should be thankful for the people behind in every endeavor of promoting biodiversity organizations. Through the years, their efforts provides a clear vision for our next generation community.

  6. I wanted to fololw up on your question about how important agrobiodiversity might be to future food security. Though I still agree with your comment about it being very important in terms of being able to find new crops able to deal with changing environmental conditions global warming, etc., I would like to suggest that agricultural diversity HAS ALWAYS BEEN important. That we chose to act as if the well would never run dry’ doesn’t mean that diversity itself wasn’t important to our agricultural productivity or food security. The importance of diversity it’s impact on our food systems is the same now and will be in the future as it ever was. Because there is less diversity now than in the past, it’s VALUE is going up because it’s becoming a scarce resource. So, it’s definitely more valuable, but not necessarily more important’ (it’s basic role in our ability to feed the world hasn’t changed; without diversity the options for developing plants able to respond to changing environmental conditions are limited -that has always been the case). In fact, it might be argued that if we’d taken it as seriously then’ as we do now’, we might not be in as big amess as we are maybe. Just a thought!

Leave a Comment