Arrivederci – Ann Tutwiler's Farewell Blog

As Ann Tutwiler, Director General, Bioversity International prepares to step down, she reflects on the last six years and the shifts in international discourse around agrobiodiversity in her last blog for ‘DG Dialogues’.

I started ‘DG Dialogues' during my first weeks as Director General back in 2013, inspired by a field trip to our research sites in India. Bihar was suffering from severe drought. The longed-for monsoon rains were late and the crops in the fields were desiccated. Together with our scientists and local partners, I met the farmers – the 'citizen scientists’ we work with to find wheat and rice seeds to help them adapt to the changing climate. Because together we were able to find drought- and heat-tolerant varieties, the fields that are part of our research programme were in much better shape than the surrounding ones.

I returned from that trip truly inspired and ready for action. I had seen firsthand the innovative approaches used by our scientists – in this case citizen science where farmers are active participants in the research – and how agrobiodiversity is delivering results on the ground to the people who need it most. Since then I have spent much of my time on the international stage, educating policymakers, corporate leaders and funders about the importance of agrobiodiversity to nourish people and sustain the planet, as well as returning to the field as often as I could.

For my final blog, I wanted to highlight some of the many events and experiences that have shaped my time as Director General, so I reviewed all my past blogs to see what had driven me to put virtual pen to paper. What struck me most was how the recognition of agricultural biodiversity as a solution for sustainable food systems has become mainstream during the last six years. One of the reasons for this is the mounting scientific evidence of just how agrobiodiversity can contribute to food systems that nourish people and nurture the environment, enhancing environmental, economic and social health. During my six-year tenure alone, our scientists contributed to more than 800 peer-reviewed publications. Regretfully, I cannot cover all of these in my blog, but I sincerely encourage you to browse them here.

Perhaps the most significant driver of this sea-change occurred two years into my tenure – with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals. The 17 Goals connected previously standalone challenges – for example, zero hunger, strengthening climate resilience and halting biodiversity loss – to global food and agricultural systems. By making these connections across different global challenges, the goals made it clear that our food systems are a major part of the problem and had to be a major part of the solution.

As Cristiana Pasca Palmer, Executive Secretary, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) neatly summed up in a recent oped for Devex: “It is a false dichotomy to choose between producing food and protecting biodiversity. Thriving ecosystems enable us to grow food, while greater genetic diversity in the crops we grow can increase yields and even improve the nutritional quality of foods.” This was a strong positive declaration, given that in the past many have seen agriculture and the environment as mutually exclusive or even mortal enemies. 

The first time I witnessed the high-level dialogue on mainstreaming biodiversity for sustainable food systems turning into action was at the CBD's 13th Conference of the Parties in Mexico in 2016. Bioversity International was there to present the Agrobiodiversity Index, a tool for countries, companies and projects to track and measure agrobiodiversity in diets, production systems and genetic resources. The room was packed. Policymakers, private sector representatives and many others had come along to learn more and find out how this new tool could help them to mainstream agricultural biodiversity into their food and agricultural systems.

In 2017 we published our flagship book Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems: Scientific Foundations for an Agrobiodiversity Index.

The book was the first comprehensive scientific analysis of how agrobiodiversity can make our vulnerable food system more resilient, sustainable and nutritious. It gathered all the scientific evidence in one place and really put the topic and Bioversity International on the map. My phone rang off the hook with journalists wanting to know more. In the end, 64 media outlets from around the world covered the book, spanning the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal.

This year, using the Agrobiodiversity Index, we will produce the first baseline assessment of the status of agrobiodiversity in ten countries and assess to what extent their actions and commitment are improving its sustainable use and conservation. Based on the results, we will work closely with these governments to understand the best ways to use and safeguard agrobiodiversity to make their food systems more resilient and productive. 

And the evidence of change continues. Just last week, I attended the launch of 50 Future Foods – an initiative by Unilever-Knorr and WWF-UK to introduce 50 nutritious, resilient and forgotten foods into their products. At Davos, Cristiana Pasca Palmer launched her campaign to raise the visibility of the 2020 CBD Conference of the Parties in China: the importance of agricultural biodiversity to one of the world’s most important economic sector was on everyone’s lips. I like to think that Bioversity International has played some small part in convincing global leaders that agrobiodiversity must be part of the transformation of our food and agricultural systems.

Yet, my time as Director General also had its difficult moments. The upturn in interest in our mission coincided with a drop in funding to the CGIAR system, which deeply affected Bioversity International, leading to three separate rounds of painful layoffs and belt-tightening.

2015 and 2016 will stand as two of the most difficult years Bioversity International ever faced. I wish to express my deepest gratitude to our staff, our Board of Trustees, our partners and our funders who stood by us during these difficult months, especially our host country Italy, who stepped in with additional contributions, just when they were needed the most. Because of all our efforts, Bioversity International today is on solid financial footing, with a growing base of bilateral support for our mission.


Today the future is bright. In 2018 we have strengthened Bioversity International’s capacity, laying the foundation for what Juergen Voegele* called a “more than historic, and more than heroic” Alliance with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Not only will this Alliance enable Bioversity International and CIAT to deliver greater impact at scale, it also will contribute to a restructured CGIAR.

In closing, as I prepare to hand over to my successor – Juan Lucas Restrepo, who will serve as Director General, Bioversity International and CEO-Designate of the Alliance – I would like to quote the newly published EAT-Lancet Commission report:

“Food in the Anthropocene represents one of the greatest health and environmental challenges of the 21st century.” The report recommends that “production needs to focus on a diverse range of nutritious foods from biodiversity-enhancing food production systems rather than the increased volume of a few crops.”

This is not news to us. The genetic diversity of crops has been at the heart of our work for the last 45 years.

Ann Tutwiler
[email protected]

From 1 March 2019, Ann Tutwiler will serve as Chair of Bioversity International USA, Inc.


Read the complete 'DG Dialogues'


* Senior Director, Agriculture Global Practice, World Bank Group and Chair of the System Council of CGIAR