The report suggests investing in drought-tolerant durum wheat to diversify food supply chains © PA Images
The report suggests investing in drought-tolerant durum wheat to diversify food supply chains © PA Images

Mass extinction threatens global food supplies

26 September 2017

Global food supplies are being “seriously threatened” due to a mass extinction of wildlife and an overreliance on a handful of crops vulnerable to climate change, according to a report. 

The report, Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems, by research group Biodiversity International, said the destruction of wild areas, pollution and over-hunting had started a mass extinction of species. 

It said recent extinction focus had mainly been on wild animals—half of which have been lost in the last 40 years—but the report found the same pressures have threatened humanity’s food supply, with at least 1,000 cultivated species already endangered.

Ann Tutwiler, director general of Bioversity International, said although the pressures on future food supply had already begun, there had been almost no interest from authorities to help solve it.

“Huge proportions of the plant and animal species that form the foundation of our food supply are just as endangered [as wildlife] and are getting almost no attention,” she said.

“If there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains each and every one of the 7bn people on our planet.” 

The report said three-quarters of the world’s food today comes from just 12 crops and five animal species, which had left supplies vulnerable to disease and pests that can sweep through large areas of monocultures. 

It added that reliance on only a handful of species had increased the risk of supply shocks as droughts, rising temperatures and unpredictable weather events become more common.

Tutwiler said global food production must become more diverse and include species that were not widely grown now but were better equipped to withstand hostile climates and disease.

“What we see is that a lot of mainstream crops can be quite vulnerable to climate and pests and diseases in part because many of them come from a narrow genetic base,” she said.

The report set out how both government and companies can protect, enhance and use a variety of little-known food crops that could help alleviate the pressure.

In particular, it suggested investing in food species such as drought-tolerant Ethiopian durum wheat, the frost-resistant Andean grain canahua or the disease resistant and highly nutritious To’o banana from Papua New Guinea could make food supply chains more resistant to climate shocks.

The report said that diversification could also help fight malnutrition globally by bringing little known but highly nutritious foods into the mainstream.

Tutwiler said saving the world’s “agrobiodiversity” was also vital in tackling the number one cause of human death and disability in the world—poor diet, which includes both too much and too little food. 

“Poor diets are in large part because we have very unified diets based on a narrow set of commodities and we are not consuming enough diversity,” she said.

“Food biodiversity is full of superfoods but perhaps even more important is the fact these foods are also readily available and adapted to local farming conditions.”

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