In June 2017, the Crop Trust launched its Food Forever Initiative (FFI) at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum. The two-day Forum, aimed at “[discussing] progress on transforming the food system to solve the interconnected challenges of climate, sustainable development, and health,” included speakers from politics to business to science. Among them was Marie Haga, who has served as Executive Director of the Crop Trust since 2013.
Established in 2004, the Crop Trust works towards long-term conservation and global food security by safeguarding biodiversity. It makes the world’s millions of crop varieties available to farmers and plant breeders by providing financial support for genebanks, supporting management of genebanks, coordinating activities of conservation institutions, and backing up seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Haga, a Norwegian diplomat with experience in both the public and private sectors, believes conservation of agricultural biodiversity is “doable, technically possible, and relatively inexpensive.” Under the FFI, a group of Champions for agricultural biodiversity from a variety of industries will “make a point of including agricultural biodiversity in their respective agendas.” These Champions include government officials, leaders in civil society, private sector executives, and other prominent people with a drive to advocate for biodiversity conservation.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk with Haga about the importance of agricultural biodiversity, the FFI’s mission, and how it will achieve these aims.
Food Tank (FT): The FFI was launched in June 2017 at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum. Why was FFI created and what are its objectives?
Marie Haga (MH): Our world is facing one of its biggest challenges ever. How do we feed 8.3 billion people by 2030 while our climate is changing and the competition for rapidly diminishing natural resources is growing? Our food systems are changing fast and we need to take joint action today to ensure that agricultural diversity can drive the transformation of our food system towards more resilience.
Fortunately, there is good reason for optimism. The amazing wealth of diversity of our crops and livestock presents many opportunities to ensure that future generations can sustainably produce sufficient and nutritious food.
Preserving and using this agricultural crop diversity for the future is feasible—technically, financially, and politically—and world leaders have committed to getting it done by 2020. The United Nations made a call to maintain genetic diversity and ensure access through its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Target 2.5:
By 2020 maintain genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at national, regional and international levels, and ensure access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge as internationally agreed.
The Crop Trust, together with the Government of the Netherlands, sparked the creation of the FFI as a platform to raise awareness of the importance and urgency of conserving and using agricultural biodiversity for enhanced food and nutritional security. It advocates for concrete actions and ideas to support the implementation of SDG Target 2.5. The ultimate goal of the FFI will not only be to effectively conserve genetic resources but also ensure a greater use of agricultural biodiversity.
FT: What steps will FFI take to achieve these objectives?
MH: FFI is an advocacy platform that promotes specific activities and mechanisms that ensure we maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals, and their related wild species.
We cannot expect to see sustainable change in the way we produce food without creating awareness. All of us share the responsibility for ensuring the future of our food supply.
The value of biodiversity for a sustainable food supply is not well recognized beyond the scientific community, so awareness is fundamental if we are to achieve Target 2.5. FFI hopes to reach a broader, mainstream audience to share success stories and inspire others to take action.
FFI is currently identifying the most promising ideas for awareness and will then mobilize relevant individuals, partner organizations, and the necessary resources to put ideas into actions. We will promote inspiring ideas and actions not only from within the initiative’s participants but also from external sources through various means, including our website and social media, open events, and expert group meetings.
To effect real change, FFI is bringing together high-profile individuals and organizations under a shared vision.
We have named a number of ‘Champions’ who are high-level government officials, senior executives, civil society leaders, celebrities and other notable influencers. These Champions advocate for the cause, showcase successes to communicate the importance of agricultural biodiversity, lead by example, and seek to inspire others.
Finally, organizations with relevant mandates will be invited to join the Initiative as Partner Organizations.
FT: What sort of engagements and activities have you implemented so far?
MH: One of the first Food Forever Partner Organizations, the EAT Foundation, invited us to launch the initiative as a part of their fourth annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum. The Food Forum provided an excellent platform to showcase the goals of the initiative and introduce our Chair, the President of the Republic of Mauritius, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, and a number of Food Forever Champions.
FFI remains in its infancy and we are now working with many of these partners to define concrete next steps. We have also been busy preparing for events like the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, where we hope to continue reaching new audiences.
We have launched a website where we will publish updates on FFI’s latest activities and updates. We will include new partners and Champions as our network begins to expand worldwide.
We are also asking everyone—from consumers and retailers to farmers and policy makers—to take a first step and show their commitment by signing the Declaration of Interdependence on our website or follow us on social media @FoodForever2020.
FT: You indicated that Food Forever is specifically addressing SDG Target 2.5. How many plant and animal genetic resources conserved do you believe would constitute success of SDG 2.5?
MH: The astonishing range of species and varieties cultivated by farmers past and present is one of the world’s most valuable natural resources. It represents the raw materials that plant breeders and farmers need for tomorrow’s climate-resilient crops. When we lose this diversity, we lose our options for the future. Crop diversity is disappearing rapidly. Studies suggest that for some crops up to 90 percent of diversity has been lost in different parts of the world. We must preserve these options.
We need to stop the loss of agricultural diversity and we need to use genetic resources more broadly. If we do that we can achieve more resilience in our food systems and enable them to better withstand near-term shocks and long-term challenges. This is the key message that Food Forever aims to deliver.
We estimate that the world’s genebank collections hold about 7.5 million accessions and about 2 million of these are unique. As an absolute minimum target, we have to ensure that unique materials continue to be maintained in secure and sustainably funded facilities. However, these collections still fall short of capturing all of the genetic diversity available in the world’s crops and their wild relatives, which are still being cultivated by farmers or which exist in wild lands.
Estimating the total number of genetic resources that capture the necessary amount of genetic diversity that may be required in the future is challenging. Food Forever will advocate for efforts to improve our understanding of genetic diversity and how the loss or increase of such diversity can be monitored most effectively.
FT: How will these efforts work towards other SDGs?
MH: The agricultural biodiversity that underpins our food supply contributes to many other SDGs beyond Goal 2, from poverty reduction to improved land and water use to climate action. SDG 17 encourages the development of multi-stakeholder partnerships for the implementation of the SDGs and is of direct relevance to Food Forever. FFI is such a partnership, since it consists of multiple individuals and partner organizations including national governments, NGOs, multilateral organizations, the financial sector, and academia.
FT: Does Food Forever, or any of its partner organizations, focus efforts on a particular set of crops?
MH: We do try to focus on the genetic resources of crops other than the world’s major staple crops that are thought to be under-conserved, under-collected, and under-utilized. This includes many important local vegetable, fruit, cereal, and legume varieties, for example. Without conserving these diverse resources adequately, they are not available for use in breeding or direct cultivation by farmers. However, these resources are needed to grow and consume a wider variety and diversity of crop species as part of our food systems. This increase of diversity is a major contributor to more resilience. We at the Crop Trust, as well as some of the other partner organizations of Food Forever, work to better conserve and utilize some of these more ‘minor’ crops.
FT: The Food Forever Initiative will end in 2020. How will you ensure the sustainability and legacy of the program?
MH: The FFI termination coincides with the expiration of SDG Target 2 in 2020. We all agree there is much work to be done. Thankfully, Food Forever is involved with individuals and organizations across many relevant sectors that can take meaningful actions.
The focus for 2020 will be to ensure the adequate conservation of our crop and livestock genetic resources in genebanks, in farmer’s fields, and in the wild. The necessity of this conservation does not stop in 2020. We hope to maintain these genetic resources forever.
The work of the partner organizations that comprise Food Forever will continue beyond 2020 and will ensure that its activities and programs will continue.
In addition, we hope that long-lasting effects will be seen through our passionate Champions and the individuals we reach, who will continue to advocate for the importance of agricultural biodiversity well after the 2020 deadline has passed.