Are we getting anywhere?
How do we know if we are making progress on achieving our sustainable development and conservation goals?
Our highest level global agreements on development and biodiversity are truly inspiring. That the world can come together to agree, for instance, that poverty and hunger, gender inequality and barriers to access to education should all be completely eradicated, is in itself worthy of celebration. That we have extended and made much more explicit our understanding of what it takes to achieve human well-being – including sustainably managing energy, infrastructure, water, aquatic and terrestrial natural resources, and even combating climate change – represents huge progress over previous goals agreed less than two decades ago.
A second look at our sustainable development and biodiversity conservation agreements turns my feelings from excitement to dread. The honesty that has been written into these goals by courageous negotiators reveals the truth that we have a long way to go within a very short amount of time. It reveals that our previous goals were not sufficient, or even close to achieved. This is particularly true for climate change, natural resources and biodiversity.
Thus we now have updated targets, such as 2.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), contributing to Goal 2 (End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture), agreeing:
“By 2020 maintain genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at national, regional and international levels, and ensure access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge as internationally agreed.”
In a parallel manner in target 13 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, Aichi Biodiversity Targets, we have agreed:
“By 2020, the genetic diversity of cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and of wild relatives, including other socio-economically as well as culturally valuable species, is maintained, and strategies have been developed and implemented for minimizing genetic erosion and safeguarding their genetic diversity.”
Note the magic date of 2020. Note that this is less than four years away.
Other SDGs allow a few more years to finish the job. Perhaps we in the agricultural biodiversity conservation field have been given less time because our goals are feasible. That is, given adequate resources, we have the technical and political ability to complete our task. As Paul Smith, Secretary General of Botanic Gardens Conservation International once said, “There is no technical reason why any plant species should become extinct”. We know how to collect, conserve, and share agricultural biodiversity.
But that’s not to say it will be easy.
While the most daunting hurdle to achieving full conservation of crop, wild relative, and livestock diversity is simply having enough financial resources devoted to the task, an almost equal challenge is knowing when we have it all conserved. That is, when we have done our job. And along the way, knowing how much progress we are making.
“Gap analysis” is a useful indicator method
While the current indicators for CBD Aichi Biodiversity Target 13 include some well-crafted language for genebank and in situ conservation, the proposed data resources needed to actually make assessments are often insufficient, and there is no proposed standard method for actually performing the assessments. Much worse, the sole current proposed indicator for SDG target 2.5, although potentially indirectly associated with the target, is very, very far from a direct assessment of the representation of agrobiodiversity in conservation systems.
Over the past decade CIAT’s DAPA program has been contributing to global advancements in scientific tools that enable assessments of the state of conservation of agricultural biodiversity, particularly with regard to crop wild relatives, the wild and weedy cousins of important food crop plants. These advancements have been made as researchers and practitioners around the world have generated more information about the identity and geography of agricultural biodiversity, and much more openly shared this information digitally (e.g. GBIF and Genesys). At the same time, tools that enable the mapping of this diversity, including revealing threats to species in their natural habitats, have developed rapidly.
Earlier this year, CIAT in collaboration with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and a number of research universities, produced the first ever global analysis of the level of representation of crop wild relatives in the world’s genebanks. The results, unfortunately, bolstered the evidence that we have a long way to go before our agricultural biodiversity is fully conserved.
As the SDGs, CBD Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, and other global agreements struggle to find tangible indicators for achieving their stated targets, we propose that the results of our global analysis of crop wild relatives can be directly used to assess the current state of conservation of these wild species ex situ. Moreover, the methods used in the “gap analysis” can be adapted for assessments of crop landraces and livestock breeds. Furthermore, the tools can be used iteratively to assess progress over time.
We have prepared a policy brief outlining our international agreements related to agro-biodiversity conservation, and exploring how gap analysis methods can be used to measure progress toward these goals. We hope that these tools will be employed at national, regional, and other levels to assess the state of conservation of our agricultural heritage and, in this spirit, the data, methods, and results have been made openly available for use. We would be most pleased to collaborate on expanding the use of these tools in contribution to our shared goals.