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Three out of four are missing from agricultural biodiversity

Three out of four are missing from agricultural biodiversity

Biodiversity represents the best response to climatic stress, drought, fauna nutrition and human nutrition for the natural and agricultural environment.
With the loss of biodiversity, beyond the energy and ecological function, there are social and cultural repercussions as food diversity allows for a better diet and supports knowledge and traditions.
Suffice it to say that our young farmers, for the most part, do not know many of the species and breeds that were cultivated and bred by our ancestors and, in fact, some they will never know except in some ancient publications.
This is because the loss of the food, cultural and environmental heritage has reduced the species present on the Italian territory to the bone, and the surviving ones are mostly in danger.
The data on Italian agricultural biodiversity, recently updated, tell us that, on average, three of the four plant species cultivated in the last century are missing.
A loss of biodiversity that represents a very serious phenomenon from an environmental point of view, which therefore does not concern only distant countries, but by now concerns us closely, being able to destabilize the delicate Italian agri-food (and political) system as well as the systems of crops of our country.
These data emerged at the recent FAO Food Systems Summit, which took place from 24 to 26 July at FAO.
Among the data that emerged, it stands out that, in the last hundred years, the loss of biodiversity has affected the Italian agricultural and livestock system almost irreversibly.
During the summit, the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, stated that “The right to food is a fundamental human right. The Food Systems Summit that took place two years ago highlighted a fact that we cannot deny: global food systems have broken down and millions of people are paying the price. The paradox is that we die of hunger while tons of food are wasted, we die because we eat too much or too little…”.
According to the numbers reported by some organizations in the agricultural sector, throughout the Italian peninsula there were 8,000 varieties of fruit in the last century which today are reduced to just under 2,000. Of these “survivors”, 1,500 species are considered endangered.
Thus the loss of agricultural biodiversity, the result of millenary experiences of peasant cultures, is dragging down, dare we say “knowledge and flavours”.
We are losing our food heritage, with a decrease in the information it brought to our body (with all the consequent diseases and pathologies) and we are losing the wealth that arose from a millenary knowledge handed down in all local traditions.
An unprecedented catastrophe against which, obviously, we cannot feel sorry for ourselves but we must make the necessary corrective measures.
Unfortunately, bad information, the interests of multinationals in the sector and a lack of conscience have led to a dangerous vortex.

Cheap food production and intensive agriculture are the main causes of biodiversity loss. In recent decades this loss, together with the rate of species extinction, has increased as never before.
In support of what emerged from the FAO summit in June 2023, the report “Food system impacts on biodiversity loss”, published on 3 February by the British study center Chatham House with the collaboration of the United Nations Environment Program (Unep) and Compassion in world farming, one of the largest international organizations for animal welfare.
The current commercial distribution system that favors large quantities of a few varieties certainly does not play in favor of biodiversity. After all, the standardization of the offer is under our eyes every day; just think that when you go shopping in supermarkets not only do you find a few species of fruit or vegetables but there are almost no more varieties of these and, above all, knowledge of them has been lost. If we were to ask a young farmer or consumer a series of fruit varieties that our ancestors cultivated, the answer could be very embarrassing.
Unfortunately, the few current varieties have been selected because they are easier to keep, bigger and more colourful: in a word, because they are more attractive and the consumer prefers them, but they are neither the best nor the most resistant; they are just more beautiful to look at and represent that emptiness of form so dear to our current civilization.
We are faced with the loss of a food but above all cultural heritage: the fruits speak of the territory and of those who cultivate it; biodiversity is precious for the conservation of the environment. In these conditions, with the climate changes underway changing the scenario we are used to, the risk of extinction of other species is more than a hypothesis.
That’s why there isn’t much time to waste.
Those who still resist the idea of the need for an agroecological transition, as if it were a romantic thing or linked to small family productions, must be answered with facts, certainly not of a scientific type (those are firmly established, even if little disclosed) in the texts of agroecology.
It is necessary to invest in knowledge of these species (at least those remaining), in cultivation techniques, intercropping, multiplication, etc.
We must go back to the fields; we need to get off the ivory towers of a certain type of research which, since the second half of the last century, has perched behind the professorships, no longer dialoguing, neither with farmers nor with future agronomists nor, much less, with the citizens.
Obviously there are virtuous exceptions (generalizing is one of the too easy sports) but they are too isolated and risk not implementing virtuous paths.
It is also necessary to work for the multifunctionality of farms to open a window to small farmers and breeders – who have the desire and the interest to recover the old species to improve the quality and variety of the offer – for whom new ones have emerged market channels thanks to direct sales to consumers, Solidarity Purchasing Groups and other distribution systems, to cite the European strategy, of the Farm to Fork type.
We need to sensitize not only farmers, technicians and researchers, as well as citizens but also a political class that is too distant from these concepts and too ill-informed by dissemination systems and interests very far from this knowledge. Of that knowledge that only nature can give and that we are in danger of losing as we move away from it.

Guido Bissanti

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