Mountain Agrobiodiversity Working Group

To increase organic production is a part of the European Green Deal, which indicated in the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies the objective of 25% of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming by 2030. Other than this, one of the latest communications of the European Commission (EU COM 380, 20.5.2020) states that by 2030, it is necessary to invert the trend of genetic erosion in agriculture by, for example, the use of traditional breeds and cultivars. The safeguarding of agrobiodiversity is an extension of the concept of biodiversity conservation that refers specifically to the varieties/races of plant, animal, and microbe species of agricultural interest, as well as crop wild relatives. The loss of agrobiodiversity represents a serious problem that has prompted governments at global and local levels to take immediate action. This resulted in the drawing up of international guidelines and strategies such as, for the European Union (EU), the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including principles which were integrated into some European Directives and hence acquired by EU member states. The figure of the “custodian farmer”, for example, is responsible for the production of seed and livestock in the area where they are traditionally grown (in situ). Horticultural plants varieties require particular attention due to the high number of species/varieties and their vulnerability among the various taxa that make up agrobiodiversity. This is probably due to the lack of information regarding garden crops and because cultural information (historical memory), together with the multiplication/conservation of land races conducted by local farmers and exchange of seeds of horticultural plant, has always had an informal aspect not subject to written rules. Hence, a significant number of unknown land races (herbaceous varieties of plants) could still exist isolated in farms

Traditional plant varieties and animal breeds are resources adapted to low input and organic agriculture, but also under serious threat of disappearing. Many of the traditional genetic resources (both animals and plants) have been lost over time, replaced with other more productive varieties/races or due to changing consumer tastes. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that about 75% of global agrobiodiversity has been lost over the last century and that three quarters of food worldwide is produced by only 12 plant species and five animal species. The management of specialized and sometimes monoculture cropping systems generally require intensive use of energy, water, fertilizers and external inputs for pest and disease control. The same is for high-production and intensive breeding systems. Plant based functional biodiversity, and native hardy breeds, rarely utilised, could help farming systems to reduce the dependency of external inputs, while increasing economic sustainability and preserving important genetic resources. Being locally adapted, in fact, traditional animal breeds and plant varieties, constitute unique genetic resources for genetic improvement programs, a source of food diversity available to humans and other living beings. They provide important genetic resources fitted to their environment and they can represent a valuable resource for innovative lower-input agricultural systems and innovative solutions for climatic and social changes.

Although gene bank accessions could fulfil the conditions set by the EU directive for conservation varieties, their lists could be completed by a germplasm that is not part of the government gene bank system and is actively managed by farmers and gardeners organized in seed savers’ and breeds’ associations or other individuals engaged in the development of informal seed and livestock supply systems. The alliances of local and national governments, research centers and farmers’ associations that preserve breeds and landraces in situ proved fundamental to prevent the genetic erosion.

Very often, as in the case of Italy, public open sources of data, such as inventories produced by universities and research centers, or foundations for the conservation of agrobiodiversity such as Slow Food, can provide a considerable amount of information on agrobiodiversity, as showed in a recent research work of UNIMONT (Giupponi L, Pedrali D, Leoni V, Rodari A, Giorgi A (2020). The Analysis of Italian Plant Agrobiodiversity Databases Reveals That Hilly and Sub-Mountain Areas Are Hotspots of Herbaceous Landraces. Diversity. 2021; 13(2):70. https://doi.org/10.3390/d13020070). Further, the study showed that the areas richest in number of landraces and in different crops cultivated as landraces were located inland in hilly and mountainous areas or in general in marginal territories. Marginal areas (Mountainous, sub-mountainous, hilly areas and little islands) have almost always land system that preserves, and in some case enhances, the biological diversity threatened by changes in land use and by diffuse abandonment. The landraces could represent quality food chains for marginal territories, contributing to trade and job creation and the improvement of the general competitiveness of the agricultural sector of marginal territories. Although historically cultivated, they could be rediscovered and, contradiction in terms, represent new and innovative solutions to environmentally friendly agriculture and supporting human health, as often they are also functional food to improve human nutrition and contribute to a varied diet for human health. Often horticultural landraces belong to the fabaceae family and the number of consumers dedicated to a healthier lifestyle with less consumption of meat, more plant-based protein food and looking for nutritious food, is increasing.

It is therefore of paramount importance to reverse this trend to preserve this heritage through the characterization (agronomic, genetic, nutritional, and historical) of landraces and the promotion of sustainable, innovative, and quality agri-food chains other than the conservation in seed banks.

It is then of paramount importance the information exchange at a European level to

  • List

  • Describe

  • Monitor

  • Protect

  • Promote

… traditional varieties and breeds.

The information collected should not be an end in itself, and must be made openly available for example through web-enabled databases and web-portals (e.g. the Italian horticultural Landraces at https://www.unimontagna.it/servizi/mappatura-agrobiodiversita-vegetale/) and through the collection of best practices to implement novel marketing niches based on landraces and traditional breeds and the underpinning of local agrobiodiversity heritage. Scientific research with the most modern instruments should aim to describe traditional varieties and breed through their genetic, agronomic, phytochemical, ecological, historical characterization.

The actions of the working group aim to respond to significant societal challenges in Europe’s and global agriculture and food systems through the rediscover of traditional animal breeds and plant varieties.

Contacts:

ANNA GIORGI – anna.giorgi@unimi.it

LUCA GIUPPONI – luca.giupponi@unimi.it

VALERIA LEONI – valeria.leoni@unimi.it

STEFANO SALA – stefano.sala1@unimi.it