Integrating wild and agricultural biodiversity conservation – why we need both

In a chapter of the Routledge Handbook of Agricultural Biodiversity, researchers explore the neglected yet inextricable relationship between both wild and agricultural biodiversity and find some surprising and important linkages and distinctions.

By Simon Attwood, Sarah Park, Paul Marshall, John Fanshawe, Hannes Gaisberger

A recent article in The Guardian by Bioversity Director General M. Ann Tutwiler raised a really important issue—it’s not just charismatic wild fauna that are threatened with extinction, but a wide range of plant and animal species, varieties and breeds that are also declining and imperiled. This is a vital point for several reasons, most notably, because we are dependent on agricultural biodiversity for our food and nutrition both today, and as a genetic toolkit to respond to future climates, challenges and opportunities.

Despite this, wild biodiversity appears to dominate the biodiversity conservation discourse—of 19,000 scientific articles that have 'biodiversity' in the title, only 100 of these have 'agricultural biodiversity' or 'agrobiodiversity' in the title! In a chapter of the newly released Routledge Handbook of Agricultural Biodiversity, researchers from Bioversity International, University of East Anglia, University of Queensland and BirdLife International explore the neglected yet inextricable relationship between both wild and agricultural biodiversity and find some surprising and important linkages and distinctions.

Firstly, areas of the world that are high in wild biodiversity are often high in agricultural biodiversity. We examined this relationship by looking at the global maps of Key Biodiversity Areas (areas that have been identified as critically important for biodiversity conservation), with areas of high crop diversity (using maps developed in a seminal paper by Monfreda et al. 2008). We found several areas of overlap between ‘hotspots’ of agricultural and wild biodiversity (Fig. 1), including East Africa, Mediterranean Europe, Western India, southern Thailand, south-eastern Bolivia, and parts of Indonesia and China.

A more detailed view of the East African example shows considerable overlap in an arc from Ethiopia, through Kenya, into Tanzania and Uganda (Fig. 2).

This implies that: a) agricultural biodiversity and wild biodiversity often occur in the same places, b) diverse agricultural systems can support high levels of wild biodiversity and contribute to conservation strategies, c) both wild and agricultural biodiversity are impacted by similar threats (e.g. landscape simplification, agricultural intensification based on high levels of external inputs), d) there is potential to better integrate and align efforts and activities to achieve outcomes for both agricultural and wild biodiversity, and e) biodiversity conservation and food production outcomes may not necessarily be opposed to one another!

Secondly, the utilitarian benefits of both wild and agricultural biodiversity are profound. An enormous range and number of ecosystem service benefits are delivered to farmers and wider society by both agricultural and wild biodiversity — these include food provisioning services (e.g. crops, wild-caught fish, wild harvested fruits), regulating services such as pest and disease control and maintenance of water quality, opportunities for carbon sequestration, and the great cultural significance and aesthetic beauty of many agricultural landscapes and the wild biodiversity they can support (see Fig. 3). As another illustration of ecosystem service contributions, a recent global-comparative analysis on environmental income, which included approximately 8000 households in 24 developing countries, pointed out that the environment—i.e., natural forests and other natural areas—plays a critical role in rural livelihoods. The estimated environmental income makes up 28% of the total household income, which is close to the income share of crops (Angelson et al. 2014).

Despite these fundamental interactions between wild biodiversity and agricultural biodiversity, research, policy and conservation actions in these two spheres are often separated and conducted independently. In our chapter 'An argument for integrating wild and agricultural biodiversity conservation' we argue that there may be many opportunities to better integrate the conservation of wild and agricultural biodiversity. For instance, opportunities for integration could be in the form of designing Payments for Ecosystem Services Schemes (PES – see Farley and Costanza 2010) that incorporate elements of PACS (Payment for Agrobiodiversity Conservation Services – see Narloch et al. 2011). Benefits of integration could include a) providing a more holistic and systems-based approach that can better account for synergies and trade-offs amongst elements of biodiversity (capitalizing on synergies, managing and mitigating trade-offs), b) efficiencies in conducting dual-conservation actions in the same locations, c) enabling biodiversity to be more directly and effectively used for food security and human well-being, and d) designing and testing context-specific approaches to integrating Sustainable Development Goals that may be perceived as being in opposition (e.g. SDGs 2, ‘Zero Hunger’ and 15. ‘Life on Land’).

In summary, the ongoing loss of agricultural biodiversity is in many respects a sleeping giant in conservation arenas. Yet the continued loss of the very source of our capacity to feed future generations with a diverse diet sourced from a wide range of plants and animals, renders both developed and developing nations increasingly vulnerable to food and nutrition insecurity. Integrating agricultural biodiversity into efforts to conserve wild diversity offers an established route to safeguarding healthy and diverse diets for the growing global population of the future.


Angelsen, A., Jagger, P., Babigumira, R., Belcher, B., Hogarth, N. J., Bauch, S., Boerner, J, Smith-Hall, C., Wunder, S., 2014. Environmental Income and Rural Livelihoods: A Global-Comparative Analysis. World Development, 64(S1), S12-S28. DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2014.03.006

Farley, J. and Costanza, R., 2010. Payments for ecosystem services: from local to global. Ecological economics, 69(11), pp.2060-2068.

Monfreda, C., Ramankutty, N. and Foley, J.A., 2008. Farming the planet: 2. Geographic distribution of crop areas, yields, physiological types, and net primary production in the year 2000. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 22(1).

Narloch, U., Drucker, A.G. and Pascual, U. (2011) ‘Payments for agrobiodiversity conservation services for sustained on-farm utilization of plant and animal genetic resources’, Ecological Economics, vol 70, no 11, pp1837-1845