Biodiversity as the basis of agriculture


Bruno Condori, IICA's Climate Change Programme in Bolivia, “We must interact with ancestral knowledge on the one hand and with conventional science-based knowledge on the other.”

Biodiversity and best practices in climate-smart agriculture to improve the resilience and productivity of family farming in food systems. . Andean potato-based agriculture is one of the projects being promoted with European Union funds. This project is implemented by two of EUROCLIMA+'s implementing agencies: Expertise France and GIZ.

One of the objectives of the project is to identify, adapt and disseminate best climate-smart agricultural practices combined with local knowledge among potato producer organisations in territories vulnerable to climate change in the three countries involved: Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

The following is a summary of an interview with specialist Bruno Condori, consultant to IICA's Climate Change Programme in Bolivia

What is the importance of biodiversity as a basis of agriculture?

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Biodiversity is a very important component for all of us, and in several countries of the world preserving its richness has been a priority. In the context of biodiversity as the basis of agriculture, we obviously know that there are several centres of origin dating back thousands of years where humanity began to domesticate some species for food. It is well known that Mesoamerica and the Andean region have been very rich sites, where new species were generated that are now the basis of food for humanity, we are talking about, for example, corn, potatoes, and others.

But the initial basis for this domestication obviously started with an initial diversity and our ancestors who had the capacity and ability to select the best varieties, which we still have on the table today for human consumption.

The pressure on agriculture is based on the fact that the human population is increasing every day. It is currently said that almost half of the land's surface is occupied by agriculture at various levels. When this pressure occurs and greater crop production is required, three or four commodity crops tend to be intensified, such as the best-known wheat, rice, and corn crops in the international market. The intensification of these crops has displaced varieties that are not as commercially valuable, thus putting biodiversity at risk.

So if we compare the diet of decades ago as reported in several publications, 50 or 100 years ago there was greater diversity in the consumption of cultivated products in the human diet, and today it has been reduced to only a few products.

What is the role that ancestral knowledge plays in the conservation and use of biodiversity? Specifically, for example, with the potato

There is a wealth of knowledge that, to my thinking, has not yet been fully described, nor fully recovered or valued. Many studies have been done, but I believe that there is still much to do. For example, how they manage altitudinal terraces, their management of varieties and species, planting in holes and in mixtures, crops in association with different planting seasons, etc. There are several actions that these conservators carry out in situ and one of the barriers that exists in the Andean zone is language.

Many of the scientists or technicians do not speak the local languages to rescue all the knowledge that these populations manage in their native language. In addition, in these in situ or local conservation areas, there is an incredibly developed knowledge of use, especially among women farmers. They know which potato to use for a certain dish; which potato will cure a stomach-ache; which potato they can use for a headache, which potatoes they use to feed babies or children, and so on.

So, I think that these have been practices that they have been doing for thousands of years and that, if we don't manage to understand this, and share them with the other side of science, they could be in danger of being lost.

How can biodiversity also be considered a key element in the immediate demand we have to confront climate change?


The rural populations that manage these genetic resources today use several actions they developed long ago. Let us remember that our countries, and especially the areas that are centres of origin, are areas with high environmental diversity, animal, and plant species, etc. Therefore, they have been surrounded by different conditions, which has caused them to manage their own adaptation strategies without our having told them about the problem of climate change.

This is evident when we go to work with them, and they are already practicing the concepts of adaptation, but not the concepts as we know them. For example, what is the climatic variety, in other words, they use more short term bioindicators in order to determine which varieties they will plant the following year, when they will plant during the year, how they will plan their rotation cycles in 3, 4, or 5 years, depending on the area. They have a resilient management system. We are talking about varied mixtures, use of different altitudinal terraces, different seasons, etc,

However, I emphasise again, I think that we still need to interpret, with evidence, all these practices that the people have been using here for thousands of years, and thanks to that ability, they have managed to have varieties and species that allow them to confront all possible conditions and still produce food.

Precisely in what ways does this project, in which you are involved, which is being promoted with European Union funds under the EUROCLIMA+ framework, aim to promote these actions?

This is one of the projects that covers three fundamental aspects in the development of technically feasible recommendations in a context of climate change. The first component that is related to the development of climate-smart practices is based on the use of their varieties and how with the production of these varieties, they should reduce their carbon footprint in terms of production. But, through efficient use of the resources they have, we are talking about water, nutrient use, cultural practices, etc., efficient low-carbon potato production as a hallmark of family farming could contribute to mitigating climate change.

Behind these practices is everything that is biodiversity. I understand that each country is using varieties that they have been using in their production systems for years. Then, if we give them additional best practices that are more efficient, we can effectively support the mitigation of climate change. However, this is the technical-biological part, but there is another part that this Project integrates very well, and this is related to the economic aspect, focused on the wellbeing of the farmers.

Although they are going to produce efficiently with Climate-Smart Agriculture, what is seen in the second component of this project is how this differentiated product, with a low carbon footprint, can enter market components through commercialisation, and that their effort pays off so that there is a rapid flow dynamic of their products in the markets at a fair price; and that this can be beneficial to them.

Generally, the projects are based on the technological part only and not on the social, economic, or market flow parts, which are quite complicated but necessary. There is one last part that I consider fundamental and it is related to knowledge management. For example, all these experiences gathered in the previous points should be presented, shared, and discussed, so that there is a greater dissemination of their results. A greater scaling-up of this effort to ensure that this knowledge and technology is shared with potential users.

It seems to me that these three components are very important for this project, which integrates several viewpoints and that the EUROCLIMA project will contribute to different aspects of this initiative.


In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, what activities will need to be promoted more forcefully to protect all the processes that are expected with this project?

There are many spaces for reflection that are being generated from the community, from the common population to spaces at the level of political decision-making and cooperation. For example, at the level of the common population, which is now in quarantine, in several countries, urban inhabitants have been seen approaching producers. In Bolivia we do not have many large market centres, and therefore these are distant for the majority who live in peripheral areas. The Ministry of Agriculture, in collaboration with IICA and other institutions, has decided to promote mobile fairs in all the neighbourhoods, in the form of mobile markets. These mobile fairs have reached the outskirts of the city, with products from peri-urban and rural agriculture, because before the large market was not perceived as such because the intermediary or wholesaler was there, but in these neighbourhood fairs small farmers have been seen bringing small quantities of potatoes, onions, etc.

On the other side, there is the common urbanite who never went to a market for different reasons. But this situation has brought these two communities together. The urban buyer did not know where the product came from, and usually was not aware of the sacrifice of the family farmer. Actually, in this encounter we can see a setting for reflection, for awareness, of the buyer in this phase of a new relationship with the producer. Before, it was not perceived that way, someone went to the supermarket, paid, and did not know who was behind the cultivation of these products. Now, however, with these mobile markets, these two groups have been brought together.

At the institutional level, many spaces for discussion and reflection are being generated, in addition to plans and policies that help in the rehabilitation of agriculture for food security. So, in this sense, we see that with COVID-19, most in society are having a different assessment of agriculture, considering it as a fundamental strategic sector for each country and that it cannot be stopped. Therefore, there must be a dialogue at political and civil society levels to say that basically what we really need to continue our grassroots activities is food, and this food comes from agriculture.

Another reflection that we could draw from this mobile fair situation is that varieties of species of other crops have appeared that are underused, such as oca, tarwi, cañahua, etc. Therefore, if we relearn our food habits, we could dynamize our diet by consuming these other non-traditional products, we could promote a more diversified and sustainable diet and consumption of our agricultural products for the benefit of all, the family farmer and the consumer.

By generating this type of dynamic interaction, which is more local and direct, I think there is a very interesting opportunity to reinvent ourselves and live in respect for the environment and our agriculture.

Here you will find more information about the project Biodiversity and best climate-smart agriculture practices to improve the resilience and productivity of family farming in potato-based Andean food systems.

Profile: Dr. Bruno Condori has extensive experience in agrobiodiversity, agriculture, and climate change issues. He developed several investigations as an international scientist in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres (CGIAR), and the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) and in other national entities such as ALTAGRO and PROINPA in Bolivia. He is currently a postgraduate professor at Bolivian universities and a consultant at the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). His publications are available at Scopus (Author ID: 23481031000).