A report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that the future of food is under “severe threat” because of the number of animal and plant species that are disappearing.

The report, prepared by FAO under the guidance of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, is based on information provided by 91 countries and the analysis of global data.

Calling for greater biodiversity, it reveals people are depending on fewer species for food, leaving production systems susceptible to shocks like pests or disease, droughts and other extreme weather events due to climate change.

It reports that although about 6,000 plant species can be used for food, less than 200 varieties are widely eaten, and only nine make up most of the world’s total crop production.

FAO director-general José Graziano da Silva said: “Biodiversity is critical for safeguarding global food security, underpinning healthy and nutritious diets, improving rural livelihoods, and enhancing the resilience of people and communities. We need to use biodiversity in a sustainable way, so that we can better respond to rising climate change challenges and produce food in a way that doesn’t harm our environment.

“Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” 

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By GlobalData

By analysing data from 91 countries, the FAO said there was “mounting evidence” the world’s biodiversity was under “severe threat” due to pollution, badly managed water and land use, poor policies, over harvesting and climate change.

The report, read by just-food, presents evidence that the biodiversity that underpins food systems is disappearing – putting the future of food, livelihoods, health and environment under severe threat.

The FAO’s findings point to decreasing plant diversity in farmers’ fields, rising numbers of livestock breeds at risk of extinction and increases in the proportion of over-fished fish stocks.

The report reveals that the world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. Of the 7,745 local (occurring in one country) breeds of livestock reported globally, 26% are at risk of extinction.

Nearly a third of fish stocks are over-fished and more than half have reached their sustainable limit.

The largest number of wild food species in decline appear in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Asia-Pacific and Africa. 

The FAO is calling for improved collaboration among policymakers, producer organisations, consumers, the private sector and civil-society organisations across food and agriculture and environment sectors and suggests opportunities to develop more markets for biodiversity-friendly products could be explored more. 

It also highlights the role the general public can play in reducing pressures on biodiversity for food and agriculture.

The FAO suggests consumers may be able to opt for sustainably grown products, buy from farmers’ markets, or boycott foods seen as unsustainable. 

just-food column from the US: Will biodiversity become the new organic?