Biodiversity is one of the most nebulous concepts of our times. We all know what can happen to biodiversity – it can get lost, forgotten or may even disappear. But what are we actually talking about when we refer to biodiversity?
Talking is the operative word in this case. Various studies have shown that there is an extremely strong correlation between genetic biodiversity and linguistic diversity. A 2012 research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, for instance, has identified 35 hotspots and 5 wilderness areas which – despite representing just 24% of the earth’s surface – are home to more than half the planet’s plant species and, more surprisingly still, an equally high percentage of animal species. Well, these areas (mainly situated in South East Asia, in South and Central America and in Africa) also host 70% of the languages spoken on our planet.
The meaning of biodiversity: between words and food
There are various theories that attempt to explain the bond between language and plants, words and food. Possibly because the communities living in areas like these, endowed with such a wealth of natural resources, could live apart without having to communicate; maybe because these areas were late to fall under the influence of European colonization owing to particular climatic conditions and geological morphologies, as in the case of Papua New Guinea. What we do know, without a shadow of a doubt, is that they are both endangered.
The decline of linguistic diversity is just as rapid as that of genetic biodiversity – around minus 30% since the Seventies: without bombarding you with more figures, it is sufficient to know that the world population is starting to speak the same languages, just as it is beginning to eat the same foods. According to Fao statistics, as many as 1000 food species are involved in climate change, one of the factors (but not the only one) responsible for the reduced biodiversity of our planet, which accounts for the loss of 60% of plant-based calories worldwide. Today, 60% of our calories come from 4 crops, comprising wheat, rice, maize and potatoes.
Biodiversity at Indigenous Terra Madre
Biodiversity was among the topics addressed at the Indigenous Terra Madre event: one of the speakers was Stefano Padulosi from the international research institute, Bioversity International. Padulosi spent several years in Africa doing what is known as ex situ biodiversity collection. Throughout the world, research teams are engaged in taking seeds outside their area of origin to preserve them in germplasm banks where adequate quantities of food species are stored. Preservation sites of biological variety which would be necessary in the event of a biological catastrophe, like a sort of black box: a prospect that is fascinating and terrifying at the same time.
There are 1750 of such seed banks throughout the world which serve as a source of genes to fight pests, diseases and abiotic stresses. The latest of its kind to be created is on the Svalbard islands, the most northerly inhabited areas of Europe, chosen for the possibility it offers to exploit the permafrost temperatures without having to depend on electricity. One is naturally amazed by such elevated levels of technology and specialization, but Padulosi is keen to point out: "The problem is that there are only samples based on the main crops, with plenty of cereals but very few fruit and vegetable varieties".
So, it also becomes necessary to carry out the so-called in situ preservation. “Farm preservation is important for the local population because of the strong association between food and identity” continues Padulosi “But also because it does a better job in enabling seeds to adapt to climate change and any parasite attacks”. Unlike the first type of preservation, however, the latter receives less governmental aid and is largely dependent on the activities of individual associations, engaged in finding regeneration practices and taking some of the burden of biodiversity preservation off the shoulders of the local farm workers.
When referring to biodiversity preservation, Stefano Padulosi uses a financial metaphor: “It’s a bit like going into the bank for advice on how to diversify one’s investment portfolio. This is a lesson we have learned from the Irish Potato Famine". Agricultural biodiversity makes us better equipped for change, whether it comes in the form of disease, parasites or higher temperatures.
Biodiveristy in India: Loss and Conservation
Then, there is the health issue, which we have also addressed here. For instance, the citrus indica, which is an endangered species, is used (leaf paste and fruit juice) in India as an antidote to snake bites and jaundice. In this respect, apparently simple measures assume a fundamental importance, such as documenting local varieties of medicinal plants and wild vegetables.
In one of the Indian villages we visited, Pyrda (300 inhabitants, which can only be reached by means of a two mile walk on foot), the children always have a wheel of seasons hanging up in their classroom on which they draw the village plants and translate their names into three languages – Hindi, English and the local dialect. If linguistic diversity and genetic biodiversity influence each other, safeguarding the former may help preserve the latter: the local languages contain all-important knowledge about the land and plant properties, a heritage of traditional knowhow whose ever increasing importance is acknowledged by ethnobiologists.
"Now, a greater awareness is gradually catching on – take the work done by Slow Food to safeguard against extensive farming and an exasperated use of mechanization. With my work team, we have collaborated with the Indian Parliament in favour of changing legislation on Food Security, so that farmers of minor grains may also receive subsidies. But you too can do something to help, starting from your food shopping". Even a visit to the supermarket can become an agricultural measure to valorise marginalized areas and forgotten crops. By diversifying our trolley, we can also help diversify the planet.
In the past fifteen years or so, quinoa has experienced a boom, thus creating a new – and mainly virtuous – economic cycle in South America. However, the Andean cereal is not the only one to have been rediscovered: other examples include amaranth and canihua. Alternatively, the Bambara Groundnut is a pulse that grows exclusively in the arid zones of Africa and tastes like chocolate or – to mention some more familiar names –lupin beans and fonio.