How Agrobiodiversity impacts people's lives

Ten Principles for Agrobiodiversity


Prof. M S Swaminathan

I endorse the vital importance of FACT’s 10 Principles for Agrobiodiversity, which clearly express how we all benefit from a more equitable and diverse food system.

Agrobiodiversity provides a foundation for food, nutrition and livelihood security. Diversity in fact, is the basis for crop security.  It is believed that agriculture started over 12 thousand years ago, with women at the forefront of selection and domestication of over 5000 plant species, to suit different ecological, climatic and cultural conditions as well as to meet diverse needs for food, medicines, and indeed incomes.

Climate change has brought new challenges to agriculture. It is important that we have a proactive analysis of the changes that are likely to take place in cropping systems as a result. It is in this context that we should look back to the past and identify the varieties of crops which had been grown in difficult weather conditions, able to thrive with less water or in poorer soils. These climate-smart crops also have restorative and protective traits that help sustainably intensify agriculture by allowing farmers to increase the variety and quantity of food that they grow. By cultivating agrobiodiversity, everybody wins.

With the modernization and mechanization of agriculture the number of cultivated crop varieties has gone down steeply. While in the past several hundred plant varieties were grown, gradually this has come down to five or six crops such as wheat, rice, maize sorghum, and potato.  The remaining crops are increasingly underutilized, neglected or have become orphans; many are at high risk of disappearing. The current interest in agrobiodiversity seeks to maintain varietal diversity in order to enlarge the food basket and the diversity of diets.

Several steps are needed for this to happen. First, we should ensure the conservation of varietal diversity for posterity. Secondly, we should pay more attention to cultivation practices and crop varieties which enrich soil fertility and maintain soil moisture. Thirdly, we need to introduce postharvest technology measures which will not reduce the quality and yield of the range of neglected crops. Lastly, we need to develop methods by which both home consumption and market sales of these crops are improved.

I stressed this point in my 1973 Sardar Patel Lectures titled “Our Agricultural Future”. For the purpose of promoting environmentally sustainable technology, I advocated Gandhian agriculture where productivity can be enhanced without harm to the environment.

“Based on the most advanced principles of biological science, we can probably claim to have developed a Gandhian Agriculture, because this would be an agriculture where Gandhian concepts become manifested in the form of an advanced rural economy, benefiting all sections of the community. Also this will be an agriculture which enriches and not harm the environment”

Gandhian agriculture is based on the principle of non-violence to nature. On the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, we need to urgently spread this message as the pathway to sustainable food and nutrition security.

Chefs, Supply Chains, and Agrobiodiversity 

Erik Oberholtzer
Chef and Co-Founder
Tender Greens

The global food system is so complex that we often get lost in its tangled mess. Twisted by marketing spin. Influenced by politicized subgroups. Chefs and restaurateurs struggle to balance the demands of an ever changing consumer landscape swayed by shifting headlines and the intricacies of an opaque supply chain. Confused, we often make purchasing decisions that compete with our values sending confusing messages back down through the supply chain. 

The 10 Principles for Agrobiodiversity serve as a guide to understanding of the pathways towards a healthy food economy. Operators can use the guide as a reference tool in navigating their supply chain choices. For those motivated to hold themselves and their producers accountable it serves as a checklist providing clarity on values and practices. In the arms of a talented communications team these best practices can connect consumers to the positive impacts of their food purchases. A more informed chef with a supportive clientele can serve as a catalyst for positive change in local markets. A conscious brand with national or international reach can affect similar outcomes across a broader global system.

As a chef I believe food is at the center of everything we care about. As curators of culinary culture, we have the power to promote the food systems that pave the way for a more resilient tomorrow. The list of 10 Principles and the practices they represent offer us a clean template to align us around good food decisions. Every meal matters!

Photo credits: Crop Trust

Ten Principles for Agrobiodiversity 

by the FACT Roundtable, edited by Ann Thrupp and Alberto Miti

The successful integration and expansion of biodiversity in food systems require upholding basic principles that represent significant changes in the predominant patterns of food production and trade. These principles support climate-friendly regenerative biodiverse farming practices, responsible and effective food businesses, healthy diets, and ensure fair benefit-sharing with producers and communities. Application of the Ten Principles identified here provide benefits to producers, communities, consumers, and other stakeholders in the food supply chain, and is aligned with broader efforts to develop sustainable, equitable and regenerative food systems, as well as responsible businesses.

1. Promote Healthy Soils

In an era of unpredictable climate, environmental and economic change, healthy soils provide numerous ecosystem services. However, these services are not properly reflected or valued in current economic landscapes. Farmers using biodiversity-friendly and regenerative practices produce far more than just bushels per acre and crops to be sold at the market. 

Agrobiodiversity-friendly farming approaches that promote soil health include strategies such as intercropping and/or cover cropping, which utilize more than one crop in a single area at the same time, improving area productivity as well as soil health. By planting a broad diversity of crops, minimizing tillage, composting residual plant matter and adopting other biologically-based soil amendments, farmers can increase the diversity and abundance of soil microorganisms, build soil organic matter, and sequester carbon in the soil. Additionally, integrated pest management methods can help control pests and weeds primarily through the use of cultural and biological solutions, with chemical inputs selectively used only as a last resort. Agroforestry is an approach that integrates care for forests with agriculture in an effort to maximize the productivity of both perennial and annual crops.

Soil Biodiversity

The combination of these benefits brings farmers and their communities one of the greatest assets on farms: resilience. This increased soil health can also safeguard water supplies by increasing water retention while minimizing nutrient run off, erosion, and flooding.


Greengold SE is a social enterprise based in Ghana that produces, processes and markets premium quality moringa products, practicing syntropic, climate-smart restorative agriculture.

2. Increase Resilience to Climate Change, Economic Fluctuations and Shocks

Prevailing agricultural systems that rely on the availability of low cost labor, energy dependent fertilizers, and pesticides collectively account for approximately 20% of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

These systems lack flexibility and resilience to climatic fluctuations and associated increases in pest and disease dynamics, and/or abiotic stress (i.e. drought, flooding). Experience and research have shown developing more biodiverse food systems can help mitigate risk to farmers and societies that face food scarcities, poverty, hunger and social friction.  

In many cases crops and diverse plant varieties that have grown in a region for hundreds—if not thousands—of years have been adapted to their environments and often require fewer inputs and water than introduced commodity crops. 

Practices such as multi-cropping, intercropping, cover cropping, crop rotations, reducing tillage, planting hedgerows and reducing synthetic chemical use can increase carbon sequestration, increase water retention and reduce overall vulnerability to climate-related stresses while also contributing to food security.


The goal of MSSRF’s Agroforestry Project (Wadi, supported by Nabard) in Tamil Nadu is to give farmers the tools to be resilient to any kind of shock by helping them to design agroforestry systems where they can cultivate many varieties of crops (cash- and underutilized species), that can be profitable, nutritious and resilient to climate change.

Information Artwork by Alberto Miti

Using these biodiversity-friendly crops and farming practices can also help farmers and societies become more resilient to economic fluctuations and system shocks such as major price reductions, market disruptions, trade restrictions, transport disruptions, wars or major illnesses. Approaches that avoid “putting all eggs into one basket,” may also help farms meet local communities’ vital food and nutrient needs. 

Similarly, if farmers have diverse strategies for marketing a variety of crops, including sales to local or regional markets, rather than depending entirely on global markets, they may be more resilient to trade disruptions and can contribute to food security on a local level. These kinds of diversification strategies, both in production and marketing, can help farmers respond and adapt to global or regional shocks and dramatic changes in market conditions.

3. Promote Nutrient Security

Populations across the world have a variety of needs and preferences in terms of the foods they find accessible, affordable, appealing and culturally acceptable. Nonetheless, economic growth in developing countries, along with industrialization and globalization of the food sector, has led to increasingly uniform food consumption patterns. While human health is advanced by diets diverse in micro and macro nutrients, millions of people today rely on ultra-processed food primarily produced from four “major” crops: wheat, corn, rice and soybean. This energy-rich, low-nutrient diet lacks diversity and often ends with adverse nutritional outcomes that lead to hidden hunger, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Increasing diversity in food production systems and across the supply chain can improve health outcomes. Farms that produce and distribute a diverse mix of crops for local or regional food markets instead of only commodity crops can increase the availability of nutritious, diverse foods. This reduces a community’s dependence on ultra-processed foods and leads to improved food security and other positive health outcomes.

The convergence toward calories-rich, nutrients-poor diets is leading to increasing prevalence of obesity and several non-communicable chronic diseases.

Meghana and Shauravi are two mothers who realized that the production of diverse local grains offered the opportunity to improve the nutrition of their children and created a business to expand their impact. They founded Slurrp Farm which they hope will provide a long-term solution to malnutrition, recurrent drought and loss of sustainable food traditions.


Meghana and Shauravi are two mothers who realized that the production of diverse local grains offers the opportunity to improve the nutrition of their children and created a business to expand their impact. They founded Slurrp Farm which they hope will provide a long-term solution to malnutrition, recurrent drought and loss of sustainable food traditions.

4. Enhance Livelihoods for Women

A significant portion of the world’s food supply is produced on small landholdings; in many cases the workforce on these farms is largely women who provide unpaid farm work while bearing the primary household role of producing and preparing food as well as providing for their families’ livelihoods.


SEWA is an Indian organization of self-employed women workers and entrepreneurs that organizes around 1.2 million women entrepreneurs and smallholder farmers to practice sustainable farming and agroforestry to obtain women workers for full employment, income security and food security.

Farmer weeding maize field in Bihar, India (photocredit: M. DeFreese/CIMMYT.)

Women are powerful sources of entrepreneurship, innovation and ingenuity. They participate actively in the production of value added products and in the marketing and leadership of entrepreneurial organizations, yet they often lack access to financial services, making their market participation informal at best or non-existent. Access to land tenure, key assets, inputs, training and markets are ongoing challenges. 

Diversity on farms can translate to diversity of outputs and therefore diversity of activities and food products. Anecdotally, interventions with women farmers, especially in growing regionally adapted and nutritious crops, often leads to improvements in household nutrition, making women’s empowerment a key factor to improve agricultural productivity and rural development.

5. Ensure Knowledge Sharing

Sharing knowledge keeps traditional farming practices alive. Community members overall can gain new economic opportunities by reviving and equitably sharing traditional knowledge about biodiversity-friendly practices among themselves. By planting traditionally diverse, bio-regionally adapted crops, farmers can protect their cultural and natural resources while receiving a number of ecosystem service benefits that provide greater adaptability and increase a community’s resilience to climate change.

Support by plant breeders and soil scientists can help growers identify and develop traits or varieties they feel are desirable and well-adapted to local conditions. This collaboration can enlighten scientists with traditional ingenuity and help scientists and growers to develop innovative, user-centered solutions to modern food system challenges. While knowledge sharing may create two-way transfers of technology or information between the scientific community and farmers, it is equally important for farmers and communities to protect their knowledge and intellectual property rights; to avoid exploitation and extraction by buyers or investors, farmers and their communities must be fairly compensated for their knowledge, seeds and other diverse products.


A group of organic farmers in the Indian state of Karnataka organized themselves to share knowledge, farming practices and seed to safeguard their traditional millets and rice varieties and spread organic farming practices all over the state. They founded Sahaja Samrudha, an aggregator for the organic farmers cooperative, seed company and training centre. Finger millet is one of the crops that Sahaja Samrudha is sharing and reviving among its farmers.

Finger Millet, one of the crops that Sahaja Samrudha is sharing and reliving among its farmers. Photocredit Alberto Miti

6. Uphold Resilient Land Use Practices

To develop effective land use practices and policies to increase agrobiodiversity and its benefits in food systems, societies and farmers need to a) avoid conversion of forested land or land that is unsuited for agriculture into agricultural land; b) introduce and enhance diversified cropping systems and other sustainable regenerative production methods based on agroecology in all sizes/scales of farms; and, c) promote small scale diversified farming

Farmers and the broader society gain advantages from land uses that conserve and enhance agrobiodiversity, such as planting of a variety of crops or species in space (through intercropping and polycultures) and over time (through rotations and cover cropping), and the integration of other land use practices, such as forestry, agroforestry, animal husbandry, sustainable intensification, as well as the conservation of natural resources such as woodlands and native habitat that surround farmed fields.  

The growing consolidation and homogenization of land use in the global food system have exacerbated the challenges many farmers, small entrepreneurs and communities worldwide face in gaining access to land for farming. Given the scarcity of affordable land in many regions and restrictions on property rights, farmers often do not have the options or choices to plant a wide diversity of crops or varieties. In contrast, securing tenure for long-term land use (through ownership rights and/or long-term secure leases) is known to help incentivize farmers to use more sustainable practices, especially over the long run.  

If they gain access to land by leases or ownership, farmers need to have flexibility to diversify plant crops and varieties suited for local land, soil, and climate conditions. If and when possible, farmers should avoid obligations set by buyers to plant particular singular crops or use uniform monocultural chemical-intensive practices, and buyers need to avoid setting inflexible requirements ill-suited to local land use requirements. 

Equitable land use access and the protection of producers’ property rights are necessary for farmers to pursue regenerative agrobiodiverse practices, and those that incorporate biodiversity-friendly practices are likely to be more resilient and sustainable over time.


Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Association is a network of civil society organizations with the goal of empowering small-scale farmers and improving the sustainability of rural communities through ecological land use management.

Information Artwork by Alberto Miti

7. Empower Youth

In most global regions the average age of a farmer is nearly 60. While elders typically maintain farms, the youth leave the countryside to chase economic opportunities in urban areas that promise a better future for them and their families. This migration condemns rural areas to progressive depopulation and aging of both labor forces and ideas; urban areas also suffer from greater stress, with job markets flooded by low skilled and uneducated young workers that aspire to upward mobility while living in overpopulated ghettos.

Training and knowledge-sharing can provide this young workforce with new business opportunities at home that strengthen their communities. A youth-powered food production system that is founded on diversity, education and knowledge-sharing will produce a more progressive and sustainable food system, one that gives youth the tools to be decision makers in their communities and gain better working opportunities along the whole food value chain.


Eats Shoots and Roots is a Malaysian social enterprise driven by the mission to empower urban urban youth with the skills and tools to know and grow their own food thus inspiring them to take action in their food system.

Information Artwork by Douglas Gayeton

8. Create Business and Job Opportunities along the Value Chain

The production of diverse foods and crop varieties can stimulate rural development and lead to the creation of value-added products that build markets, attract new investments, and support local economies. 

Value addition is the process of taking a raw commodity or crop and changing its form to produce a higher quality end product that has greater economic value. This increased value can be gained through a variety of methods that include fermentation, canning, pickling, drying, cooking/baking, juicing, or blending. Other forms of basic processing, such as milling, peeling, hulling or adding other ingredients can greatly extend the shelf life of perishable products, and by using certified production practices, such as organic or fair trade, can bring additional economic value to these products.

Decentralized food systems with more efficient benefit-sharing mechanisms may contribute to broader economic opportunities for businesses in the supply chain beyond a local region. They also help to enhance job skills in a community and increase knowledge for food preparation, processing and marketing innovative products.


With its blockchain based traceability system, the food processor company Farafena has developed an equitable value-chain that is transparent from source villages in West Africa to consumers in North America and guarantees fair economic opportunities to all its actors.

9. Support Conservation of Genetic and Natural Resources

A key aspect of increasing agrobiodiversity is the conservation and stewardship of genetic resources, including seeds and germplasm. A farmer’s rights to store, plant and conserve seeds for future use must be protected. Communities and farmers also need to have property rights to ensure that their seeds and genetic resources are not exploited for commercial purposes without adequate compensation and to ensure that benefits from sales of their crops and seeds are locally protected.

Both societies and farmers should establish in situ (on site, i.e., on farm) and ex situ (off site, off farm) conservation methods to safeguard the genetic heritage of crops for generations to come. In situ practices generally consist of seed-saving and propagation on farms, whereas ex situ generally refers to seed banks established by communities, scientific research institutes, governments and other entities such as seed companies. The conservation of seeds at a local level strengthens farmers’ food sovereignty, helps to perpetuate food traditions on a community level and foresees the potential for future production options.


Thanks to Seeds for Needs, Ethiopian smallholders farmers increased their fields’ biodiversity by accessing and cultivating 4000 traditional varieties of Durum Wheat that were once stored in the seed vault of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute.

Farmers and agronomists in a durum wheat field in Ethiopia. Photo by Alberto Miti

The responsible conservation and use of seeds and genetic resources requires the protection of usage rights and the role of farmers and communities as stewards of genetic resources. These stewards depend on these seeds for their livelihoods and have vital knowledge about their use. For biodiversity-based systems to be viable both ecologically and economically, seed-sharing systems (such as community seed banks) that allow preservation of genetic resources, as well as rapid and open access, need to be encouraged and supported. Distributed guardianship systems that collect and catalog agricultural genetic heritage could facilitate the development of tracing systems that give farmers property rights over the genetic material that they have developed over many generations, while also guaranteeing wide and open access to this invaluable genetic treasure.

Safeguarding a wide variety of seeds is also a great risk-management strategy to face future challenges and a priceless bank of flavors and food varieties that scientists, farms, chefs and others can use for experiments and innovations.

Farms interact with and are part of larger ecosystems. Therefore, conserving natural resources must include the diversity of organisms beyond farmed fields that contribute to productivity and sustainability. Many agrobiodiversity-friendly production practices are derived from agroecology and agroforestry principles and are designed to safeguard the environment, help to conserve natural resources and habitat, preserve open space and protect wildlife. Wild plants, pollinators, beneficial insects, wild animals and microorganisms are of crucial importance and greatly impact agricultural ecosystems and vice-versa.

10. Protect Indigenous and Local Cultures

Throughout the world, food production and consumption patterns have traditionally played an important role in establishing, expressing, and celebrating diverse cultures. When people lose their native foods, they also lose their culture. In celebrating the local diversity of foods, including traditional foods, communities connect not only with their traditions but also themselves.

The great diversity of food varieties, seeds/genetic resources, recipes and methods of preparing meals are important factors that distinguish cultures. For many societies, seed conservation methods, farming cycles and culinary practices are tied to religious rituals and spiritual traditions. Farming communities often have valuable knowledge of these diverse cultural traditions and play crucial roles in passing on this information through generations. Chefs can also provide an important role in expanding our knowledge of the culinary traditions agrobiodiversity represents and provide us with a pathway to first reintroduce diverse crops into people’s own kitchens while also bringing global visibility and markets to these foods.


El Movimiento de Integración Gastronómico Alimentario Boliviano (MIGA) seeks to generate development processes that start from the Bolivian regional kitchens, strengthening regional and local food identities. Following this approach, gastronomy is not the end, but the means to enhance, promote and stimulate the development of the food sector as a source of cultural pride.

Case Studies


Small Millets