At the end of February, a meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) to develop the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework was held in FAO, Rome. I was there with the IPC for Food Sovereignty. Delegates were preparing a plan of actions needed to reverse biodiversity loss. The hype leading up to the meeting was that it marked the start of a ‘Super Year for Biodiversity’.
An ever-vocal Civil Society representation present at the meeting, was clamouring for transformative changes, including expanding the use of biodiverse agroecology. But, as the IPC reflected after the meeting there’s also a need to confront corporate power’s desire to further concentrate their control of the food system through, among others, proprietary technologies, resource grabs and compliant trade agreements.
Governments at the meeting collectively failed to rise to the challenge – they even resisted inclusion of ‘agroecology’ among the proposed actions – their collective ambitions seemed lacklustre. Perhaps these were toned down in the wake of their abject failure to implement the previous 10 year plan to eliminate biodiversity loss, and their neglect to implement many prior Decisions on Agricultural Biodiversity, the component of biodiversity which provides us with food, other produce and life-enabling functions and services. These Decisions, recognising “the special nature of agricultural biodiversity, its distinctive features, and problems needing distinctive solutions” were developed by the CBD over a span of 15 years. They include multiple calls to transform the ways in which ecosystems are managed by people towards ecologically-resilient forms of production and harvesting, with a special focus on pollinators, soil biodiversity and nutrition. They recognise Farmers’ Rights to their seeds. They call on governments to reduce threats from biodiversity-eroding (industrial) models of production encouraged by perverse incentives that supported the unsustainable use of agrochemicals and the development of technologies that would undermine farmers’ biodiversity-enhancing seed systems, such as Genetic Use Restriction (Terminator) Technologies and other proprietary genomic technologies. They emphasise strict adherence to the Precautionary Principle and the Polluter Pays Principle.
Even before Covid-19, itself a product of the abuse of biodiversity, most Parties to the CBD recognised that we are at the most critical ‘fork in the road’ which humans have ever faced and that we need to organise society along a path that will enable us to live within planetary boundaries. Some Parties, though, mindful of their powerful corporate backers, resist diverting from the current biodiversity-destroying path, which is fuelled by economic growth, competitive trade and unsustainable consumption, despite it leading us towards extinction.
Covid-19 should make Parties more aware of the (now-well-publicised) links between biodiversity loss, industrial agriculture and livestock and ‘flu pandemics. Rob Wallace, the evolutionary biologist and author of Big Farms make Big ‘Flu, has been warning about this for a decade or more. In a recent article he said:
“Let’s choose an ecosocialism that mends the metabolic rift between ecology and economy, and between the urban and the rural and wilderness, keeping the worst of these pathogens from emerging in the first place. Let’s braid together a new world-system, indigenous liberation, farmer autonomy, strategic rewilding, and place-specific agroecologies that, redefining biosecurity, reintroduce immune firebreaks of widely diverse varieties in livestock, poultry, and crops. Let’s reintroduce natural selection as an ecosystem service and let our livestock and crops reproduce on-site, whereby they can pass along their outbreak-tested immunogenetics to the next generation. Consider the options otherwise.”
Covid-19 will indeed make 2020 a year to remember. In reaction to the pandemic, political leadership has demonstrated that it can act decisively, albeit nationally, with the most radical changes to our economy and social controls that the world has ever experienced. One would hope that this wake-up call resulting from the ‘revenge of biodiversity’, embodied in global pandemic of Covid-19 with its tragic losses, should make governments want to act decisively, but this time across societies and geographies, in cooperating on the stewardship of the planet, especially the ‘renewal of biodiversity’. There are opportunities to do so. Over the coming year, in preparation for, and at, the CBD Biodiversity Conference, the UNFCCC Climate Conference and the UN Committee on World Food Security (which will agree Agroecology priorities), they could cooperate to realise systemic changes. These should also inform the outcomes of the UN’s 2021 Food Systems Summit, which needs to reinforce a shift towards agroecology and food sovereignty and resist corporate capture.
Governments’ collective efforts must ensure the protection of biodiversity in general and, in particular, renewing and sustaining agricultural biodiversity especially in territories where industrial monocultures and extractive land and marine based activities have decimated biodiversity. This can be achieved in part through the co-operative stewardship of biodiversity, which regulates the functions of the Earth’s ecosystems and can limit greenhouse gas emissions. In these territories, restoring stewardship and dynamic management of agricultural biodiversity by smaller-scale food producers, working in the framework of food sovereignty, will be particularly transformative. This would require prioritising, in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, the implementation of already agreed actions to sustain agricultural biodiversity, and the outscaling of peasants’ dynamic management of biodiverse agroecology, while respecting their collective rights to their seeds, livestock breeds and forms of production. These measures would enhance the local heterogeneity, and therefore the adaptability and resilience, of agricultural biodiversity, above and below ground, at inter- and intra- varietal and species levels within production ecosystems i.e. in-field, in-garden, in-pastures, in-forests, in-waters, as well as within wider associated terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. At scale, the global biodiversity, climate, nutritional and disease crises could be overcome.
Although biodiversity, in the global lockdown, is currently getting a brief respite from the damage caused by its wealthier human members’ overconsumption, there will probably be little that is ‘super’ about 2020. Worse, in response to the economic recession, governments might retract environmental protection measures, stimulate economic (but biodiversity-destroying) activities and give greater freedoms to corporations to plunder the planet’s resources and threaten the people, especially peasants, who safeguard biodiversity. Civil Society must re-energise campaigns to prevent this happening. But, among citizens worldwide, there is now an increasing awareness about the fragility of our biosphere and the need to strengthen its resilience. This should include the imperative to embed and enhance, in farmers’ fields, in pastures, forests and waters, the heterogeneity of the agricultural biodiversity that sustains us. This increased awareness might energise collective efforts at all levels, in terms of people’s relation to biodiversity and the planet, and could mark 2020 as a turning point, the year when we decided to take a different path in order to secure Life on Earth.
Patrick Mulvany is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience