May 22 was World Biodiversity Day, an anniversary wanted by the UN to celebrate the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
For this occasion, Slowfood International has published a manifesto entitled "If biodiversity lives, the planet lives", in which it raises an alarm on the emergency related to the loss of biodiversity and the catastrophic consequences that would derive from it.
A particularly relevant theme is that linked to agri-food biodiversity, that is the varieties of microorganisms, plants, animals and ecosystems that contribute to our diet as human beings. Having a good variety allows us to cope with external shocks (viruses, pathogenic fungi, phytosanitrary problems) that potentially undermine our ability to produce food.
One of the negative consequences linked to the industrialization of the agri-food sector is the elimination of all those species that are difficult to replicate in a linear model and not in line with the standards of demand, with a consequent reduction in food biodiversity.
Today's market destroys biodiversity
The lack of commercial variety of agri-food products is a problem that is too often overlooked.
In Italy, according to Coldiretti, in the last century there were 8 thousand varieties of fruit, while today there are just under 2 thousand and of these as many as 1500 are considered at risk of disappearing due to the modern commercial distribution systems that favor large quantity and standardization of the offer.
As for the animal products industry, the data are equally impressive: one in five animal breeds in the world is at risk of extinction (there are less than 1000 animals). Thanks to advances in zootechnics, the agro-industrial sector has begun to focus only on a few commercial breeds with large milk yields and rapid growth times (often thanks to the use of antibiotics) in order to shorten the time needed to put the product on the market, maximizing profits.
One case above all: the banana
An example of how market logic can negatively affect biodiversity, and consequently our diet, is that of the banana, one of the most popular fruits worldwide. Of the more than 500 varieties of bananas, we find only one on the market (Cavendish), the only one that has been able to conquer the taste of Westerners because it is completely seedless. This has led to the conversion of all banana crops in Asia, Australia and South America into monocultures, destined exclusively for this variety of the fruit. The fragility of this system comes out the moment infectious pathogens hit monocultures, and that's exactly what's happening at Cavendish. A soil fungus known as tropical race 4 (TR 4) has begun to attack plantations in all major producing states. If the infection cannot be stopped, Cavendish will risk extinction within a few decades and there is currently no strong enough species to supplant it. The only way to save it is a targeted intervention on the genome, and that means that in the future we may only have GM bananas.
A transition to agroecology
As we have seen, the current economic system has led the agricultural sector to focus on animal and plant species with the best characteristics in terms of yield, putting at risk all those varieties not in line with market standards.
75% of the crops present at the beginning of the 20th century have now been lost and only three species (corn, rice, wheat) provide 60% of the calories needed by the population.
To avoid ecological collapse, a transition from intensive monocultures to agroecological methods such as crop rotation, green manuring and the elimination of pesticides and fertilizers, functional both to the restoration of the natural cycles of the soil and to the conservation of resources and pollinators, is needed.
It is important to be aware that there is very little natural in what we eat. The agri-food varieties that end up on our table are actually the result of decades of artificial selection that has led to a system that is as efficient as it is fragile.
Problems like this must be tackled on a global level: a collective effort is needed so that measures can be put in place that can change today's agro-industrial model, an ambitious project that puts ecological transition, agroecology and biodiversity at the center.