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14.1.3: Agrobiodiversity- Biological Diversity and Associated Human Capacity in Agro-food Systems

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  • One major way of increasing the resilience and adaptive capacity of agri-food systems in response to perturbations and shocks is to be certain they contain components with high levels of agrobiodiversity.

    Here is a standard definition of agrobiodiversity:

    Agricultural biodiversity…includes the cornucopia of crop seeds and livestock breeds that have been largely domesticated by indigenous stewards to meet their nutritional and cultural needs, as well as the many wild species that interact with them in food-producing habitats. Such domesticated resources cannot be divorced from their caretakers. These caretakers have also cultivated traditional knowledge about how to grow and process foods.. (which) is the legacy of countless generations of farming, herding and gardening cultures.

    This definition is taken from Gary Nabhan’s book Where Our Food Comes From and is based on work of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

    Figure 11.1.7.: A farmer-educator working with a Peruvian Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) presents several dozen native potato varieties from the department of Cuzco, Peru. In addition to showing the ingenuity of local potato selection and breeding by farmers, these varieties are part of a rich cultural heritage and social infrastructure, and a facet of adaptive capacity via agrobiodiversity. Credit: Steven Vanek

    There are two important points to note about this definition:

    • First, and most importantly, the biological diversity of agri-food systems includes vital coupling to the human system, most directly the people who are growers and their skills, knowledge, and other factors. These growers are “caretakers” in Nabhan’s definition; see Fig. 11.1.7 for potato varieties and a representative "caretaker" - a local farmer with working knowledge of these varieties. Agrobiodiversity exists squarely at the intersection of human and natural systems conceptualized in this course.
    • Second, it encompasses both our cultivated species of plants and animals, which are crops and livestock chosen and evolved for production, as well as their still living wild relatives and the biodiversity of the ecosystems associated with this production (both the agroecosystem itself and the surrounding uncultivated ecosystem). Agrobiodiversity production in the natural system must be sufficient to offer positive feedbacks into the human system in order to offer the incentive for continued production.

    The above-mentioned points in the definition of agrobiodiversity are illustrated in figure 9.6, which depicts agrobiodiversity as a Coupled Human-Natural System (CNHS).


    Figure 11.1.8.: Factors in human systems and natural systems commonly associated with active use of agrobiodiversity. Credit: Karl Zimmerer

    The growers of agrobiodiversity range widely around the world. They include the people of traditional and indigenous cultures who often live in more remote locations. Many of these people live in mountainous regions and hill lands of the tropics and sub-tropics. Their use of agrobiodiversity in agri-food systems is reflected in certain global centers of diversity, as shown in the map that we presented in Module 2 regarding the sites of crop domestication in the early history of food systems. Such centers are sometimes called “Vavilov Centers” in recognition of the pioneering contribution of the scientist Nikolay Vavilov in the 1920s.


    Figure 11.1.9.: Global areas of concentrated agrobiodiversity corresponding to the Vavilov "centers of diversity" introduced in Module 2. Credit: used with permission from the Wikimedia Commons project

    Increasingly it’s recognized that significant agrobiodiversity also occurs outside the Vavilov Centers. For example, many urban and peri-urban dwellers grow small fields and gardens as part of local, small-scale agri-food systems. Producers of diversified production for local markets in North America and Europe are still another important group of agrobiodiversity-growers.

    The extent of agrobiodiversity, in terms of crops and livestock, may vary from only a few types in a field or farm to many dozens. Agri-food systems with only a few types are quite important since they can confer significant resilience to perturbations and stressors. For example, cultivation of only a few types of barley, wheat, or maize (“corn” in the U.S.) among neighboring farms and communities can offer a much higher degree of resilience than the monoculture of a single type.


    Figure 11.1.10.: A sampling of the many present-day native varieties or landraces of barley from that crop's center of domestication in Ethiopia. Credit: Used with permission under a creative commons license from the Global Crop Diversity Trust

    Equally important is the case of the megadiverse agri-food systems. In the potato fields of the Andes Mountains of western South America, for example, a farmer may grow as many as 20-30 major types of potatoes in a single field. (Figure 11.1.11). Here, in tha global “Vavilov Center” of the Andes mountains, high levels of agrobiodiversity are integral to the agri-food system as a result of factors in the human system (skills, knowledge, labor-time, cultural and culinary preferences) and the natural system (highly varied climate and soil conditions characteristic of tropical mountains).


    Figure 11.1.11.: Nearly 70 varieties of Andean potatoes in a local agri-food System in the Peruvian Andes. Credit: Karl Zimmerer

    Activate Your Learning: Agrobiodiversity and Resilience

    Assigned Reading:

    Please read the brief "introduction to the reading" below and then the following pages from Gary Nabhan's book "Where Our Food Comes From":

    Nabhan, G.P. "Rediscovering America and Surviving the Dust Bowl: The U. S. Southwest ", p. 129-138, part of Chapter 9, Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine. Washington: Island Press.

    Introduction to the reading: The reading describes part of a much longer account of travels by Vavilov (for whom the Vavilov centers of agrobiodiversity are named, see the previous page in the book, and module 2.1 in this course) from 1929 to 1934 in North America. During this trip, the Russian crop researcher met with U.S. researchers as well as "keepers" of U.S. native agrobiodiversity. This chapter describes Vavilov's trip to the Hopi Indians in 1930, in which he and the U.S. scientists were able to observe firsthand the seed systems and their resilience to the drought that was currently going on in the United States. The author of the book, Gary Nabhan, relates this account of the visit and then compares it to similar visits he made to the Hopi in the more recent past. This compiled history of seed systems and their relation to both human and natural system changes in the U.S. Southwest is a sort of case study, from which the assessment worksheet will ask you to draw conclusions.

    Download Worksheet

    Activate Your Learning (8 short answers)

    This exercise requires you to fill in some of the blanks in the worksheet based on the reading.

    1. Two of the shocks that the Hopi food system has been exposed to have already been filled in on the worksheet, the main one being periodic drought. Within the human system box, fill in some of the agricultural methods (ways of growing food) described by Nabhan that represent adaptive capacity to drought shocks.

    (add text box)

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    Deep planting of crops to capture moisture, spring-fed terraces, stream-side fields to capture flood moisture.

    1. In the natural system box, fill in how agrobiodiversity and their seed systems also represented adaptive capacity of the Hopi against drought.

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    Diverse crops adapted to local conditions, local seed saving so that seeds were not lost, tree crops and edible wild plant gathering to supplement diet.

    1. During the more recent drought, Nabhan states that an additional climatic factor related to climate change tended to worsen the effects of drought. What was this? Place it in the additional shock box at the lower edge of the diagram.

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    Hotter summer temperatures due to climate change.

    1. A shock that emerged from the human system was the pumping of groundwater for coal mining and coal slurry transport in the region. What was the vulnerability to drought in the local natural system that this water extraction created? Fill it in in the “vulnerabilities” box in the natural system part of the diagram.

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    Pumping of groundwater for coal mining dries out springs and reduces the availability of spring water for irrigated terraces.

    1. In the last part of the chapter, Nabhan notes first a social/cultural vulnerability that has emerged in recent times. What is this social vulnerability? Note it in the vulnerability space of the Human System rectangle.

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    Shift toward salaried work in cities by young people within the community.

    1. Nabhan also notes a new social adaptive capacity that has arisen to challenge this vulnerability. What is this newest change that gives Nabhan hope about the fate of Hopi seed and agricultural systems?

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    Hopi organizations that seek to revitalize farming traditions and the Hopi food system.

    1. Of the three shocks now documented in the diagram, to which one would the Hopi knowledge system and adaptive capacity been most exposed to over recent centuries? Answer in one sentence.

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    Likely, drought would have been a recurrent shock with which Hopi knowledge systems and adaptive capacity would have been familiar.

    1. Compare the level of success the Hopi food system had in adapting to the older, better-known shock you chose in (7), in comparison to the other two shocks, at least during the last thirty years. (3-4 sentences, this may make the page run over to the next).

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    It was more challenging to adapt to these later shocks – their effects may have been unfamiliar based on long experience, and also they tend to affect not just production but the very means of existing adaptive capacity, for example limiting the effectiveness of known farming strategies (e.g. spring-fed terraces) or the entire knowledge system from which the Hopi drew their adaptive capacity. (some version of the above is acceptable as an answer: explain that it is more challenging and some reference to why that was so)