World Biodiversity Day brings attention to the incredible variety of living species on Earth – from birds and mammals, to bacteria and fungi, to diverse, complex habitats that provide countless ecosystem services. For many, the term “biodiversity” is immediately associated with a multitude of wild flora and fauna facing extinction from human activities. However, biodiversity is also found within cultivated agricultural crops, and when it comes to withstanding challenges like climate change and plant pathogens, is perhaps even more important for food security. As 11th Hour Project/The Schmidt Family Foundation President and founder, Wendy Schmidt, wrote in an op-ed published in Inside Philanthropy on May 22, 2022:
“Around the world, farmland now growing single crops was once a thriving habitat for a variety of species — animal and plant. Biodiversity isn’t only about polar bears and pollinators. More than 200,000 edible plant species have nourished humans throughout our time on Earth, including during the thousands of years we have practiced agriculture. But over the past century, with the rise of industrial agriculture, at times heavily funded by philanthropic dollars, we’ve abandoned 75% of all crops we once farmed in favor of singular species that, to grow, require harsh chemicals, immense irrigation systems and polluting machinery.”
But, as the Guardian reports in its “Our Unequal Earth” series, (supported by 11th Hour Project), our monoculture-centered agricultural system is no match for a climate crisis. Today, rising temperatures and erratic rainfall are ruining crops and supercharging all sorts of new and more aggressive pathogens. Though having a diverse array of plant varieties and options would boost our food system’s resilience, the world’s farms only produce a fraction of varieties, focusing instead on high-yield, homogenous crops whose cultivation also damage the ecosystem.
Schmidt shared her hopes for a resilient diverse agricultural system that can benefit both the world’s growing population and the environment.
“Over the past several decades, philanthropy has frequently sought silver-bullet solutions for strong food systems — the perfectly engineered seed, the newest harvesting and growing technologies — but has overlooked agroecology and locally led solutions as a promising path forward. More and more evidence — including troves of local knowledge and hundreds of studies analyzed in peer-reviewed papers — is proving that approach wrong. Science, in other words, is confirming the Indigenous knowledge and practice that sustained human life around the globe for many thousands of years…There is a better way for philanthropists to support locally led efforts across the planet to feed people and protect biodiversity, a path that’s being led by African farmers.”
The 11th Hour Project’s Food & Agriculture program supports organizations and movements working towards a regenerative and equitable transition of our food and farming system while building the resilience of regional farming communities and food systems. We’ve spent years learning from and supporting farmers who are stewarding land sustainably and feeding their communities, including
- Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, which is called on donors at last fall’s U.N. Food Systems Summit to stop supporting the harmful green revolution in favor of a new transformation.
- Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development (CIKOD) in Ghana, which works with farmers to sustainably grow diverse and locally relevant food and to create access to markets.
- L’Institut de Recherche et de Promotion des Alternatives en Développement (IRPAD) in Mali, which built a regional seed bank for farmers to store up to 84 tons of quality native seeds.
- The Rural Women’s Assembly, which highlights the role that women farmers play as guardians of seed and biodiversity across South Africa.
- We Are the Solution, a network in West Africa that brings rural women together to share agroecological practices, helping them produce healthy food for their communities.
Even though support for climate change mitigation through food systems change has tripled since 2015 thanks in part to funders like Funders of Regenerative Agriculture, of which 11th Hour Project is a member, and organizations like the Agroecology Fund, “it’s not enough to make a dent in agriculture, literally one of the world’s largest industries,” Schmidt wrote.
“We need more philanthropists to step up and listen to farmers around the world who are loudly calling for agroecological practices to sustain humanity and the planet. In other words, farmers have already sown the seeds that have grown the plants, the farms, the food systems and the worldwide movement for agroecology and food sovereignty. Now, they just need what you might call seed funding — and a lot of it.”