Measuring Agrobiodiversity


Sayed Azam-Ali
Crops For The Future

AGROBIODIVERSITY ISN’T JUST ABOUT the range of products in our kitchens or the types of food on our plates. Supermarket shelves are stacked with a plethora of novel food products, snacks, ready meals and condiments. However, their ingredients increasingly come from the same narrow range of plants and animals on which most of us now depend. Just three `staple’ crops (wheat, rice and maize) now provide more than 60% of the calories consumed by over 7.4 billion people. By themselves, will they be enough to nourish nearly ten billion people on a hotter planet?   If not, we need greater agrobiodiversity from more crops and more diverse agro-ecosystems, not simply more products from the same crops grown as monocultures.

After all, the main concern for farmers is to be able to sell their products. Agriculture is becoming more complex and markets today are caring about the whole story of a crop, from how sustainably it was produced to how nutritious it is. Farmers are now under pressure to fill these requirements.

Tools for traceability and transparency could be great allies to help them in transitioning toward more sustainable farming practices and signal all the values of their products to the end buyers.

In this way, food companies will be able to buy crops directly from farmers, paying a fair price, and consumers to see new more biodiversity-friendly products on the shelves.

Agrobiodiversity and the knowledge systems that sustain it provide the basis to transform agriculture for our good and that of the planet. However, to demonstrate agrobiodiversity, we need mechanisms that can trace the journey from where our food ingredients are grown through to the markets where they are consumed. For such traceability, we now have scientific and management tools to analyse the genetics, management, processing, products, end-users and markets for different crops at specific locations and across regions. By spanning the whole value chain, these tools also allow us to follow data on the origin, ingredient integrity, quality control and safety of our food from farm to plate. They can also provide open-access platforms and interfaces to demonstrate agrobiodiversity for different end-users from policy makers to consumers, farmers and researchers.

Traceability allows us to provide clarity in what we mean by agrobiodiversity and transparency in the supply chains that bring it to our plates. However, by themselves, clarity and transparency are not enough.  If we are to deliver a more agrobiodiverse food system we must gain and retain the trust of all those involved in the cultivation, distribution, processing, marketing and consumption of food. Such trust involves a philosophical commitment to the cultures and generational knowledge of the communities who have preserved, protected and cherished the agrobiodiversity that can nourish us on a hotter planet. Without their trust and commitment, we cannot transform agriculture – for good.


When trust is missing, there you have a blind and dysfunctional food supply chain.

The International Food Information Council identified transparency as one of the “Five Food Trends To Watch in 2019.” Consumers need to regain trust in their food. Traceability and transparency can help to build that trust and extend it among all the actors of the supply chain. 


Diversifying our 
Food Supply Chains

What happens when you decide to have more agrobiodiversity in the food supply chain?

Lisa Feldman
Director of Culinary Services

AS A CHEF FOR ONE OF THE LARGEST CONTRACT FOOD SERVICE COMPANIES in the world, I can’t say that agrobiodiversity or sourcing transparency crossed my mind a lot.  Sure, I understood that eating a wide variety of food from varying agricultural sources was good for people and the planet, but not specifically why. And then CIA’s Menus of Change happened.  Suddenly, it dawned on me that I was standing at the nexus of being able to use my organization’s menus and purchasing capital to help change what we feed our customers, not only to safeguard the environment, but also to empower our consumers to directly respond to climate change with their forks.

Not terrifically long after that, the Future 50 Foods Report was published. Sodexo signed on as the first to partner with Knorr, Unilever, and WWF and publicly committed to focus on creating dishes that highlighted these agrobiodiverse products on consumer menus in the most delicious way possible. This was very exciting. Not only do I get to work for a company that has grown an internal culture that Corporate Responsibility is table stakes for our consumers, we were now publicly championing an amazing chef’s palate of agrobiodiverse ingredients. Had we just figured out how to hit an “easy” button on agrobiodiversity?

Amaranth is one of the crops featured in The Future 50 Foods, an initiative launched by Unilever’s Knorr in February 2019. The Future 50 Foods Report states the issues the global food system faces and proposes tangible solutions to enable change. The Future 50 Foods proposes the  adoption of 50 of the foods we should eat more of to promote a more sustainable global food system. These 50 foods have been selected because they have a lower impact on the environment than animal-based foods and are more nutritious than  other mainstream crops in the market.

The first major agricultural product that we focused on was amaranth and I needed to figure out where we were going to source enough of it so that we could supply it to 3000 kitchens across North America. I wasn’t worried. How hard could it be to source amaranth? Surely, the company that we are contracted with for specialty whole grains could help us out.  That was when reality set in. Yes, they carried amaranth, but only in 200# bags for their industrial companies because no restaurants or commercial kitchens were buying it. Could I still find a source? Sure. Our distributor carried a “generic” 10# box that was readily available. This was when I realized that even when you work for a company that is has made a commitment to incorporate biodiverse ingredients into our food offer in a major way, almost universally, the supply chain either couldn’t give me what I needed and if they could, couldn’t guarantee that the ingredients they were offering represent the same values and principals we want to support through our food purchases and ultimately what ends up on our customer’s plates.  So, there is was, gauntlet thrown.

Not only as a chef, but as a parent, I feel a deep responsibility to make sure that the food that I am putting on people’s plates is better for their personal health and the health of the planet.  I want to help create a supply chain that allows farmers to support biodiversity by giving them resources to help increase the number of agrobiodiverse crops they grow, knowing that they have a customer for these crops, and then be rewarded for responsible agricultural practices.  I want an easy way to purchase products with traceability that our chefs can turn into delicious meals. And I want to be able to tell the farmers’ stories so that our customers understand exactly who is growing their food and can feel good knowing that the plate of food that was lovingly prepared in one of our kitchens is providing a farmer with a livelihood and helping to reverse climate change.  That’s what this activator is trying to do.

The Agrobiodiversity Index

Criteria to measure and verify agrobiodiversity in supply chains

Roseline Remans
Senior Scientist
The Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

Agrobiodiversity will illuminate entirely new operating procedures for all stakeholders involved in the production and delivery process end-to-end. The scope of agrobiodiverse products is arguably one of the largest yet in the marketplace of food claims. Within the Ten Principles of Agrobiodiversity, there are implied a significant number of new definitions of measurement, property rights, standards and considerations that extend the concept of product claims beyond current definitions.

How agrobiodiversity is defined will affect how the existing market needs to evolve to accommodate it. Existing food systems are highly optimized for efficiency, which is a good thing given the dependency of the world on them. It’s obvious but worth stating that moving around a single homogenous item is vastly easier than moving around a multitude of smaller diverse items; effort is positively correlated with cost and value. Food supply chains have evolved in a manner that starts from this base of simplicity and the economic benefits in scales of efficiency.

Markets and food supply chains have reacted in a very ad-hoc manner to the torrent of input created by the very act of creating requirements for transparency. Transparency has been foisted on supply chains largely by the market of verified claims and standards. Claims and standards have evolved from all realms of food production and consumption and become relevant in markets through their definition, application and verification. Agrobiodiversity will likely follow a similar track and due to its breadth will be the impetus to evolve concepts of transparency even deeper into food supply chains.

The Index focuses on sustainability through three pillars that also represent three measurement categories:

1. Healthy diets seeks to capture to what extent and how companies, countries and projects contribute to improving food biodiversity for healthy diets.

2. Sustainable agriculture seeks to capture to what extent and how companies, countries and projects contribute to improving biodiversity for sustainable agricultural production.

3. Current and future use options seeks to capture to what extent and how companies, countries and projects contribute to improving the management of agrobiodiversity genetic resources for current and future options.

Prior food claims evolutionary paths provide guidance as to how these various aspects are changed and in some real sense there may be the opportunity to use existing claims structures to address elements of what agrobiodiverse products will be defined as. For example, there is a significant body of work within the industry globally on addressing soil health and the broad topic of what it means to be sustainable. A review of relevant claims and defined standards structures of these concepts, regarding the definition of agrobiodiversity, may be a good starting point and could yield good opportunities to fit existing work into a larger whole.

As supply chain systems have reacted to the requirements claims have instilled in the markets they operate in, there is a necessary operationalization of those requirements on individual stakeholders to meet those standards criteria. For example, next generation claims standards in the US have extensive human-based elements to them. How people who are involved in the process of food production are treated and what the effect of that treatment is on the definition of a product is a good evolution. This is a very complex issue though that requires a level of pay and benefits transparency, within a cultural context, that at a very functional level requires stakeholders to restructure entire internal processes to be able to provide. Similarly to predicates in soil and sustainability claims, these prior efforts may also accelerate or inform the practical application of agrobiodiversity definitions and measures in these areas.

One of the main concerns of the Agrobiodiversity Index is that it should be consultative. The effectiveness of the Index is based on taking enduser needs into account from the beginning, starting from a set of scientifically validated potential indicators, and selecting those of actual potential use through stakeholder dialogue and consultation.

Claims and standards have other real effects on supply-chain systems in the realms of intellectual property. As claims and standards are often protected identities, copyright, patent and other legal ownership structures are often a critical element of ensuring the value of a defined thing, is retained legally by people or organizations that created it, or, benefit from it. As with the economics of supply chains, these concepts began in simple, non-complex fashions. As markets evolve it is a reasonable expectation that they too become more complex, enabled by new technology and iterated in broader, more complex corporations of ownership. There is valuable effort in the creation of agrobiodiversity related concepts and that value should be protected to enable and sustain the principles expressed in the agrobiodiversity identity. Furthermore, stakeholders whose actions deliver new outcomes will likely benefit from ensuring that effort is not co-opted by non-compliant players. Falsely making a claim of agrobiodiversity should be functionally and legally disabled.

In very human terms, defined and verifiable claims are a key component to scale it in a trustless fashion. That is to say that the defined idea can benefit from social transmission but is not confined to it. Thorough and valid standards require practicality each stakeholder must assess against the reality of their own context. Within that, claims can be a roadmap for new entrants to understand and learn how to change their activities and validate for themselves that they are doing something different. It is important to note, a viable and operable standard is only adequately achieved by inclusion of all stakeholders in the standards building process. This is especially so with aggregators, processors and shippers as there are physical realities of these elements, and sunk capital, that can prove to be true impediments.

Defined claims also enable a triadic market structure through claims advocacy. Claims advocacy, championed by claims specialists advocating for the expansion and application of the claim, play a key role in the process of ensuring the claim is changing stakeholder activity. Claim advocacy then takes a unique position that is a natural check and balance to other market forces that might otherwise dilute, distort or distract market actions toward an outcome not defined within the claim standard or structure. Claims advocacy should also seamlessly function as the validator whose activities meet the qualitative and quantitative measures of the claim. This naturally entails providing objective guidance to where measures might not have been achieved and ameliorative next-best actions. The engagement of claims advocacy is to promote the idea, involve as many people as are willing to participate in the idea and then work on behalf of the idea to propagate it. In this way, claims advocates are the binding function between stakeholder responsibilities. Advocacy isn’t just certification, but broader in the effort to expand the ecosystem of the claim.

The 10 principles are a good directional definition of the outcomes that are expected by enacting change within global food supply chains. The next step in the evolution of the concept of agrobiodiversity as a claim, needs to focus on the development of what role each stakeholder has in the creation of those outcomes. Edges of influence are important in the concept of then identifying the qualitative and quantitative elements that will be assessed within each stakeholder’s realm of influence. This process will also identify where there are key conflicts between the directional outcomes and the existing technology and systems ability to deliver them.

Technological solutions can bridge many of these, especially where systems integrations or data sharing are a root cause issue. There may however also exist fundamental market structures that need to be solved for. For example, in many instances the aggregation of food products at the processor and shipping levels have proved to be a significant hurdle in routing newly defined products through embedded food distribution infrastructure. This challenge is often met with one of two potential solutions. First, investing in a new less-centralized or decentralized distribution network is a way around these issues. This can be a reasonable course of action if some elements of that distribution network are already in place, however building from scratch is capital intensive and time-consuming. Second, aggregating like products under a defined claim can enable the volume necessary to make use of existing infrastructure. This can make use of the efficiency of bulk transport, however, inherently requires intermingling of like products, thereby obfuscating individual source transparency.


Agrobiodiversity feeds into and contributes to at least four Sustainable Development Goals:

• SDG2 Zero Hunger, specifically target 2.1 on access to nutritious food, 2.3. on agricultural productivity and smallholders income, 2.4 on sustainable agriculture, 2.5 on genetic resources for food and agriculture

• SDG12 Sustainable Consumption and Production, specifically target 12.2 on sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources, 12.4 on reducing the use of chemicals, 12.6 on sustainable practices and information, 12.7 on sustainable procurement, 12.8 on awareness and information

• SDG13 Climate Action, specifically target 13.1 on resilience building

• SDG15 Life on Land, specifically target 15.1 on conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, 15.5 on halting biodiversity loss, 15.6 on fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources

Agrobiodiversity will change actions and outcomes in the global food market. Like food claims before it, there will likely be a natural progression and validation of the idea within existing contexts. The key first step is a proposition of the structure and the evolution from principles to a more taxonomical definition. This definition then becomes the basis of the dialogue to validate, through the input of practicality from stakeholders, and apply the relevant claim elements to the respective market players. A very good example of the next evolutionary step is the Agrobiodiversity Index.

The Agrobiodiversity Index (AI) is an innovative framework that helps to measure the status of agrobiodiversity in diets and markets, agricultural production, and genetic resource management, and to assess to what extent commitments and actions of different food systems actors are contributing to its sustainable use and conservation. Designed by Bioversity International (now the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT), the tool provides insights on policy and business levers, as well as risks and opportunities, to increase use and conservation of agrobiodiversity to achieve sustainable food systems. The AI has 22 indicators, comprising three commitment indicators, four action indicators and 15 status indicators across the three pillars (see figure/table), which are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Aichi biodiversity targets  The framework of the index is built on scientific foundations of agrobiodiversity functions in the food system and on input from public and private stakeholders across the food system (Agrobiodiversity Index Scientific foundations & Methodology report 2019 . The AI development and implementation takes a design approach. The AI will continue to evolve and improve, as more information, datasets and analytical work can be undertaken. 

To represent the demand from different food system actors (public, private, mixed) the AI can be adapted to different forms. The country, company, project or supply chain indices share the same architecture, but allow varied input data and different final products. Specific AI applications have been designed to support different food system actors in making informed decisions in food and agriculture:

  • Risk and resilience assessment: the AI provides food system actors with insights on their exposure to different risk areas (malnutrition, poverty trap, climate change, land degradation, pests and diseases, and biodiversity loss) when agrobiodiversity is low. 
  • Intervention planning: the AI can be used to plan interventions and formulate evidence-based strategies by comparing the outcomes of different interventions in food markets, supply chains, production or agricultural genetic resource management on agrobiodiversity. 
  • Global policy alignment: Indicators in the AI are aligned with one or more of the SDG and Aichi targets. Users interested in monitoring progress towards these global targets can use performance on the AI indicators. This also helps identify if agrobiodiversity is effectively integrated into global policy interventions. 
  • Ranking and benchmarking: the AI scores can be used to compare performance on use and conservation of agrobiodiversity among countries, within a company or among projects. This can stimulate positive behaviour change as part of the ‘race to the top’ to improve sustainable use and conservation of agrobiodiversity, as well as foster exchange of knowledge and best practices.

Enhancing Food

Supply Chains

Can more transparent supply chain lead to greater agrobiodiversity?

Mark Kaplan

In A Guide to Traceability, A Practical Approach to Advance Sustainability in Global Supply Chains, the United Nations Global Compact and Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) use a hybrid of the widely accepted definition of traceability from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), along with the added key component of a sustainability focus as:

The ability to identify and trace the history, distribution, location and application of products, parts and materials, to ensure the reliability of sustainability claims, in the areas of human rights, labour (including health and safety), the environment and anti-corruption.

Traceability requires a system to follow commodities through different stakeholder processes and transfers of custody across supply chains. Such a system must be able to facilitate information sharing between stakeholders in order to validate claims such as provenance, quality, safety and product transformations.

However, traceability and transparency are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Supply chain transparency has the explicit goal of making data and information transparently available and is independent from, but well coupled with, traceability.

Fully traceable supply chains can remain opaque if the stakeholders choose not to share data. Further, storytelling content about products is often disconnected from traceability data.

Some also mistakenly believe that technologies like blockchain or artificial intelligence supersede the need for human acceptance and participation in order for traceability systems to succeed. While tools like blockchain and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can improve and protect data entered into a system, appropriate reward structures can also be used to incentivize stakeholders to share data.

What a food supply chain looks like

Companies profiles from agrobiodiversity-friendly supply chains

THE PROFILES FEATURED HERE showcase successful companies in the food and agriculture supply chain that are undertaking effective production, processing, trade, marketing, and/or benefit-sharing of agrobiodiversity-friendly foods. Most of them also illustrate practices that support community-building and agricultural biodiversity at the local level, therefore increasing ecosystem services as well as economic opportunities for food producers and companies in the food systems. The profiles are case studies intended provide inspiration through stories, and they represent various stages of the supply chain.

To read the profile, click on an icon.









Farmer training provider





Euro Company

Trying to track our food

What is the industry doing to increase traceability

Industry groups and other stakeholders like NGOs have come together to create certification schemes as platforms for collective action to address common supply chain issues. Many look to these schemes like Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Better Aquaculture Practices (BAP) and others to develop credible industry standards for certified sustainable products from raw materials to finished products. Schemes are not a substitute for traceability or transparency and have come under scrutiny for enabling users to leverage them as a means to avoid broader scope of corporate responsibility to issues like labor rights and equitable distribution of value across supply chains. Schemes are often single issue focused, driven by consumer nations with costs and complexity prohibitive to producers, therefore limiting the positive impact that the governing bodies are aiming for.
Oil palm tree's fruits

Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the fruit of oil palm tree. It is very popular in food processing for its versatility, wide applications and chemical properties. In the last 10 years, palm oil production has risen to international attention due to the devastating effects that unsustainable production practices are having on biodiversity and forests. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was established in 2004 with the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders.

The intersection of traceability technologies and certification schemes are the models for enumeration of a commodity within supply chains.

The three primary enumeration models include: Segregation, Mass Balance and Book and Claim.

  1. Product segregation should be prioritized as it ensures sustainable and unsustainable materials are not commingled.
  2. Mass balance methodology allows for sustainable and unsustainable products to be mixed. This approach is used for products that are claimed to be difficult to segregate like Cocoa, Tea and Coffee. Mass balance buyers may not know if products contain sustainable or unsustainable materials or a mixture of both, but they are able to claim “product contains _% percent of certified ingredients.”
  3. Book and Claim removes the requirement for physical traceability through supply chains. Book and Claim enables purchases of certificates like offsets enabling sustainability claims, although products may not contain sustainable materials.

Traceability and transparency can help build sustainable and biodiverse food supply chains 

Connected Mangroves​ - A case study

Traceability functions as a foundational tool to help monitor social, economic and environmental impact. Traceability systems capture data records from each link in the supply chain with inputs that can be attributed to the 17 United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development.

Recent food safety issues, labor abuse scandals, lack of biodiversity and evidence of the food system being a primary contributor to the rapid acceleration of climate change have highlighted the importance of traceability with transparency. The increased sustainable production of food has a key role to play in providing adequate nutrition for the growing population while mitigating degradation of the natural resource base.


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.
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TRACEABILITY AND TRANSPARENCY CAN HELP measure and mitigate biodiversity impacts on supply chains. Ericsson’s Connected Mangroves project is a good example. The project combines cloud, machine-to-machine and mobile broadband to help the local community in Selangor, Malaysia, to better manage the growth of new mangrove saplings. wireless connectivity to capture data relevant to mangroves’ survival such as water level, humidity, soil moisture and temperature, and other hazards in the environment.

Mangrove forests are very important systems that provide ecosystem services valued at $194,000 per hectare annually. They are home of a great variety of plant and animal species and breeding habitat for many fish, birds and turtles. Their rich life and diversity is a key source of livelihood for local populations, while the plants themselves are great allies to improve water quality and carbon sequestration.

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Mangroves in Malaysia

The Sasmuan Bangkung Malapad critical habitat and ecotourism area (SBMCHEA) is home to several mangrove species and other flora and fauna. With its rich biodiversity, good climate and strategic location, the site also hosts more than 80 species of birds migrating from winter countries. The area is also seen as a critical source of oxygen for the Manila Bay, according to the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR-BMB).

The globally recognized Connected Mangroves project was initiated by Ericsson in Malaysia, where threats such as illegal logging, fires, pollution and sea farms, have significantly reduced mangrove coverage over the past 10 years.

The project has achieved great success, with 70-80 percent of the mangroves now reaching maturity compared with only 20-40 percent that reached adulthood prior to the project.

Greater biodiversity in nature enables greater biodiversity in food through consumer education.

Do consumers care?

The Demand For Transparency and Traceability

In addition to the growing importance that leading organizations are putting on traceable food systems, consumers are demanding traceability and transparency.

According to an article featuring data from Label Insight and the Food Marketing Institute states that consumers increasingly demand transparency and a closer connection to their food.

So much so that 75% of consumers are more likely to switch to a brand that provides more in-depth product information, beyond what’s provided on the physical label.

In 2016, just 39% said they would switch brands. Storytelling content can include educational information about how consumers can apply the principles of biodiversity to their diets.

Traceability of supply chains is a growing interest for food companies. Consumers do want to know where their food comes from and food companies are starting to respond. The chocolate colossus Mondelez, for example, publishes online data about its cocoa supply chain, with geolocalization of all the 93,000 farmers in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Indonesia they work with. Consumers can access a web platform and learn where did the cocoa beans used to make the chocolate bar come from.

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Case Studies


Small Millets


*Video in the header released by Hapag-Lloyd AG under Creative Commons Attribution licence.