Mainstreaming agrobiodiversity in food production systems

Photo: A. Camacho / Bioversity International

WLE research has informed the development of targeted decision support tools that help communities, decision makers and the private sector identify actionable options to integrate agrobiodiversity in their food systems.


Strengthening agrobiodiversity – the diversity of plants, animals and micro-organisms that support our food systems – is critical to addressing multiple global crises, including climate change, malnutrition and environmental degradation. Farmers benefit from greater protection against crop pests and diseases and more options to address declining soil fertility and increasingly variable weather. Consumers can also gain access to more diverse, nutritious and healthier diets. Unfortunately, agrobiodiversity is often overlooked because of a tendency to prioritize productivity and calorie production. Also, diversifying food systems can be a highly complex process beyond the capacities of many countries and rural communities.


WLE-supported research has identified several practices and measures that can support a transition to more diverse food systems. While these approaches are well documented and include measures such as intercropping and integrating natural habitats, challenges remain on how to adapt these measures to local and national contexts. In response, the program has contributed to the development of decision support tools that help communities, decision makers and the private sector understand the potential outcomes of specific interventions. The tools are informed by detailed biodiversity assessments of the lands these groups manage: what exists, where and how it is currently being used, and any obstacles that may prevent more diverse food systems taking root.

A promising tool is the Agrobiodiversity Index. Launched in 2019, the Index is tightly focused on the needs of key stakeholder groups. Country profiles have been developed to support national-level decision making and through a process of co-development the Index has also been used by the private sector. Interest from major companies such as Danone and Olam could have catalytic effects on global food systems.

The appeal of the Index is enhanced through a number of innovative features: 22 indicators measure biodiversity across three domains that are usually disconnected – nutrition, agriculture and genetic resources; advanced techniques such as text mining help gauge the level of commitments to agrobiodiversity at the national level; and an action-oriented feature identifies the practices food system actors implement to use and integrate agrobiodiversity. By encouraging a shift towards more sustainable food systems, the Index enables countries to better measure and manage progress towards global targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

What is agrobiodiversity? (source: Agrobiodiversity Index)


Mainstreaming agrobiodiversity in food production systems can often be slow and difficult. Risk-averse farmers need long-term contracts with public and private procurement agents to help transition. Building trust with a company’s senior management is time consuming but necessary to ensure that agrobiodiversity is adequately reflected in planning, performance indicators and risk and opportunity assessments. Decision makers, too, may require convincing. Agrobiodiversity is currently missing from relevant agricultural and environmental policies and strategies in most countries, reiterating the need for clear, actionable and evidence-based recommendations.   

Next steps

Decision support tools are a powerful aid to the conversations that WLE and its partners are initiating with communities and public and private decision makers – and support the program’s efforts to emphasize the importance of agrobiodiversity. The evidence the Agrobiodiversity Index generates confirms the scale of the challenge we face while presenting clear and practical options. Its continued relevance and added value – like all decision support tools – rests on the strength of the data it uses and there remain data gaps that need to be addressed. More data is required on varietal diversity, for instance, and spatial data needs to become more frequent and of a higher resolution so that investments and interventions can be more precisely monitored over time.   


Mainstreaming agrobiodiversity in sustainable food systemsAgrobiodiversity Index websiteAgrobiodiversity Index Report 2019: Risk and resilience

SDGs supported

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss

More nature-based solutions

Rice–fish farming gets a makeover
Mainstreaming agrobiodiversity in food production systems
Optimizing ‘exclosures’ can reduce growing pressure on Africa’s degraded land
A new integrated agenda for water storage
Monitoring soil carbon to nest agricultural practices within planetary boundaries
Urban wetlands to keep cities afloat
Highlighting the importance of agricultural water pollution
Smart water management enabled by a decision support tool