An Eco-sustainable World
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Diversify agri-food systems

Diversify agri-food systems

Data from FAO and other research bodies and institutes at a global level confirm that agricultural biodiversity is collapsing at very fast rates, a very dangerous factor, both for the stability of agricultural systems and ecological systems and for food safety and healthiness. .
The alarming fact is that, although over 50,000 species of cultivable plants are known, those actually used in food production are around 200, and 66% of global agricultural production is made up of only nine species (sugar cane, rice, corn, wheat, potato, soybean, oil palm fruit, sugar beet, cassava). It is no different for animal proteins: if there are around forty species mainly bred, there are few that we rely on for meat, milk and eggs.
The diversification of agri-food systems brings various benefits at both an economic, environmental and social level. Briefly, we can indicate the usefulness of the biodiversification of these systems in the following factors.
Risk reduction: Diversification reduces the risk of failure due to extreme events such as crop diseases, natural disasters or climate change. If a farm depends on a single crop or animal species and it is affected by a problem, the farm’s entire income is at risk. Diversifying allows you to spread risk across multiple assets.
Economic stability: diversification allows farmers to have higher and more stable sources of income throughout the year. For example, by growing a variety of seasonal crops, a farmer can ensure a steady stream of income throughout the year rather than depending on just one harvest season.
Conservation of biodiversity: diversification contributes to the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. Growing a wide range of crops and animal breeds helps preserve genetic diversity and reduces the risk of species extinction.
Environmental sustainability: diversified agricultural systems tend to be more environmentally sustainable. For example, crop rotation can improve soil health and reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and plant protection products. Additionally, diversification can help conserve water and reduce soil erosion.
Health benefits: the diversification of agri-food systems can lead to greater availability of a variety of foods, contributing to a more balanced and nutritious diet for local communities.
Ultimately, the diversification of agri-food systems must be the commitment of future Agricultural Policies, to offer a series of advantages for the resilience, sustainability and well-being of agricultural communities, of society as a whole and of ecological balances.
But the diversification of agricultural systems is not possible unless a serious and complex program of conversion of economic systems is implemented; from the current linear ones to those of the circular economy. To put it simply, it is necessary that the biodiversification of agricultural systems corresponds to a series of incentives and investments, especially for young people and startups, to create microsystems and microeconomies of transformation of these products.
Fundamental principle, among other things, for the creation of efficient agroecological systems.
In fact, in the world there are countless plants from which to obtain food and other products.
In a very schematic way we can divide these plants into some categories, such as:
Food plants –
Ornamental plants –
Aromatic plants –
Officinal plants –
Medical plants –
Textile plants –
Dyeing plants –
Woody plants –
Plants for biofuel.
To which can be added plants for phytopurification, plants useful for pollination, the repulsion of phytophagous insects, etc., a factor that would significantly facilitate the technique of intercropping and rotation, another fundamental element of agroecology.
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers on the various plants.
Food plants
The number of food plants varies depending on the sources and classifications used. However, some general estimates can provide a useful overview.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there are approximately 50,000 species of edible plants in the world. Of these, however, only a small fraction is cultivated and used on a large scale. Approximately 150-200 species of plants are regularly cultivated for human consumption, and among these, only about twenty provide 80-90% of the calories consumed by humanity. The main food plants include cereals such as rice, corn and wheat, legumes, tubers such as potatoes and cassava, and various fruits and vegetables.
Among food plants, legumes (Fabaceae family) play a particularly important role.
Legumes are numerous and many of them are used in the food sector. In addition to the better known ones, such as beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, broad beans and peanuts, there are many other lesser-known varieties that are consumed in different parts of the world. In total, there are hundreds of species of leguminous plants used in food.
So, while the total number of potentially usable food plants is very high, the diversity actually exploited for human nutrition on a large scale is much more limited.
Aromatic plants
The number of aromatic plants is difficult to establish precisely because it depends on the criteria with which they are defined and classified. However, it is estimated that there are several hundred aromatic plants commonly recognized and used in various parts of the world. Aromatic plants are typically characterized by the presence of essential oils that give them a distinctive aroma. Well-known examples include basil, rosemary, mint, thyme, oregano, sage, lavender and many others.
When you consider the wide variety of botanical species that produce aromatic compounds, the number can increase significantly. Botany recognizes that many plants, although not traditionally used for culinary or medicinal purposes, possess aromatic properties.
In summary, the precise number varies, but commonly we are talking about several hundred aromatic plants known and used globally.
Officinal plants and medicinal plants
The number of medicinal plants, i.e. those used for therapeutic, medicinal, cosmetic or food purposes, is very large and varies depending on the sources and classifications.
The exact number of medicinal and medicinal plants varies depending on the sources and the criteria used to classify them. Authoritative sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC) provide estimates and detailed information on the number of medicinal and medicinal plants and their applications.
It is estimated that there are between 25,000 and 70,000 species of plants used in traditional and modern medicine worldwide. This wide range reflects the diversity of medicinal practices in different cultures and regions of the planet, as well as the continuous discovery of new species and therapeutic applications.
Textile plants
Textile plants are mainly used for the production of fibers for the textile industry. There are different species of textile plants, each with unique characteristics that make them suitable for specific types of processing and final products. Among the main textile plants we remember:
– Cotton (Gossypium spp.) – the most widespread textile plant in the world, used to produce cotton fabrics.
– Linen (Linum usotatissimum) – used to produce linen fabrics, known for its strength and ability to absorb moisture.
– Hemp (Cannabis sativa) – used to produce hemp fabrics, known for its durability and resistance to mold.
– Jute (Corchorus spp.) – used to produce jute fabrics, commonly used for sacks and packaging.
– Ramié (Boehmeria nivea) – used to produce ramie fabrics, known for its shine and strength.
– Sisal (Agave sisalana) – used to produce cordage and raw fabrics.
– Kapok (Ceiba pentandra) – used for padding and light fabrics.
– Abacà (Musa textilis) – used to produce very resistant fabrics, often used in products such as ropes and bags.
– Coconut fiber (Cocos nucifera) – used for products such as carpets and mattresses.
In addition to these, there are other plants that provide fibers that can be used in the textile sector, although less common or used in specific niches. In total, it can be estimated that there are several dozen plant species used in textile production, although the exact number may vary depending on the sources and inclusion criteria.
Dyeing plants
The number of dye plants can vary depending on the sources and definitions used. There are hundreds of different plants that can be used to produce natural dyes, but there is no definitive list or precise number that identifies them all. Some sources may mention a few dozen, while others may mention more than a hundred.
Furthermore, dye plants can also vary in the geographic region in which they are grown and used, so this could influence the list of plants considered dye plants in different cultures and traditions.
Woody plants
The exact number of plant species from which wood is obtained, obviously, is not fixed and can vary based on various considerations. However, it is estimated that there are thousands of tree species around the world that are used to produce lumber. Some of the most common species used in the wood industry include oak, pine, fir, beech, and many others. The diversity of timber plants reflects the wide range of natural environments in which they grow and the different needs of timber production around the world. Encouraging the use of wood in many technologies and products would also bring significant benefits in the field of CO2 emission/absorption.
Plants for biofuel
There are several plants from which biofuel can be made, but some of the most common are corn, sugarcane, soybean, canola, sunflower and poplar. These plants can be used to produce biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, which can be used as substitutes for fossil fuels in transportation and industry. However, extracting biofuels from these plants raises questions regarding energy efficiency, environmental impact and competition with food agriculture.
To all this we must add livestock species, which are very important in the balance of agricultural systems, which are also, as mentioned, rapidly decreasing, and fungi, algae, etc.
From this summary sheet it is clear how agricultural biodiversity must be increased with a serious program of international policies, such as the CAP in Europe.
To do this we need a total rewriting of these by connecting production systems with social systems; In short, it is necessary to restructure the support funds towards the implementation of a serious and concrete Circular Economy that connects research, investments and assistance to agricultural companies, with research, investments and assistance to startups and young people who want to transform them products in the various sectors mentioned.
This approach would also make it possible to shorten the distances between those who produce and those who transform and use (with positive effects on the reduction of climate-altering emissions), the recovery of internal areas, due to the benefits that this type of microeconomy would implement, and the rebalancing of a social system heavily dominated by multinational monopolies and oligopolies.
All this for the benefit of speeding up that still little-known agroecological transition, in its many facets, also converting the simplistic model of aid and eco-schemes, adopted in the CAP, and of investment measures. A true and new green revolution.

Guido Bissanti

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