10 ways to enhance Andean agrobiodiversity during COVID-19 and climate change

At the International Potato Center (CIP), World Biodiversity Day has special meaning for our work, as preserving the genetic diversity of Andean crops and their wild relatives is one of our core missions. In this way, we serve the larger objective of curating and protecting the planet’s agrobiodiversity: the variation of crops and livestock in agriculture and food systems. Agrobiodiversity in the central Andes is still largely intact with countless native species and ancestral varieties that were domesticated millennia ago — grown, eaten and traded by smallholder farmers.

The expansion of industrial agriculture, homogenization of food supply, and loss of biodiversity are root causes of our current COVID-19 and climate crises. In this context, Andean agrobiodiversity can play a restorative role to the environment and help address these challenges. Here we suggest 10 tangible ways to enhance agrobiodiversity in our lives in response to COVID-19 and climate change.

1. Upgrade popular urban food markets

Permanent and weekly markets throughout provide diverse and nutritious food to most of the population throughout the Andean region. These places are an essential source of staples, fruits and vegetables for vulnerable consumers. Yet, these same markets have also been infection hotspots for COVID-19. Instead of closing them down, there is a need to upgrade the architecture, infrastructure, and food environments of these markets to allow agrobiodiversity to be safely accessible.

Sample of Andean potato landraces
Sample of Andean peppers
2. Work with, not against, informal food retail and logistics

Most of the unique species and varietal diversity from the Andean region are transported by a fleet of small- to medium-sized trucks connecting farms, villages, cities, and markets. Food flows and logistics commonly involve extended family and informal networks. Restrictions on transport during COVID-19 quarantines in the region have put more power in the hands of fewer middleman and transport providers. This consolidation has led to low farmgate prices, reduced supplies of agrobiodiversity, and higher consumer prices. It is essential that informal food logistics are allowed to operate.

3. Innovate e-commerce of agrobiodiversity from farm to fork

The transition from physical markets to e-commerce and home delivery has accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis. This conversion poses a challenge for farmer markets offering a wide range of agrobiodiversity from family farming. Consumers tend to buy food baskets when visiting a market while individual farmers typically offer a specific range of produce. Therefore, e-literacy should be promoted among older farmers, while clustering products for home delivery of food baskets and developing user-friendly platforms beyond WhatsApp groups will be essential for the creating inclusive and environmentally efficient links between farmers and consumers.

Sample of Andean amaranth
Andean elders manage a repertoire of traditional climate knowledge
4. Strengthen farmer seed systems

Over 99% of the seeds for Andean crops and ancestral varieties are provided through farmer seed exchange. The vital role of farmer seed networks following extreme weather events has been well documented. The agile, decentralized, and trust-based nature of these networks will be indispensable to support the reintegration of reverse migrants into agriculture. Government and NGO seed aid programs should take full advantage of farmer seed systems to offer adapted, preferred, and available agrobiodiversity. Seed directories, digital seed fairs and seed vouchers are other practical innovations that can support quality seed distribution.

5. Compensate and recognize custodian farmers

Custodian farmers throughout the Andes play an essential role, maintaining thousands of landraces of oca, quinoa, potato, amaranth, and other native crops. These guardians and their families preserve the traditional knowledge associated with agrobiodiversity. They are central to the seed provision of rare, unique and endemic varietal diversity and play a critical role in adaptive crop evolution to confront climate change. Applied benefit sharing schemes should support custodian farmers by providing resources and incentives needed to sustain conservation while improving access to basic health and education services for these groups.

The mobile connectivity has increased considerably throughout the Andes
Popular market’s in the highlands offering root and tuber diversity
6. Reduce climate risk through system-level diversification

To mitigate risk, we’ve all been advised, at one time or another, not to put all our eggs in one basket. Agrobiodiversity is natural example of this principle, offering multiple entry points at the varietal, species and landscape levels to achieve yield stability and year-round nutrition security. At the varietal level the use of mixtures and tailored portfolios allows for a balance between modern and ancestral, late and early, and resistant and tolerant cultivars for intraspecific risk mitigation. Using mixed, pixel and intercropping at the species level provides an additional layer of field-level security. Combining these practices with field scattering and landscape level design elements such as hedgerows, windbreaks, and grassland fallows provide stacked adaptation buffers to confront shocks and crises.

7. Include agrobiodiversity in public food procurement

Typically, social protection and emergency response programs involve food aid. Using locally available agrobiodiversity offers multiple advantages, including stimuli for the local economy, short distances from farm to fork, a reduced environmental footprint, and a high probability of food acceptance based on local taste preferences. During the COVID-19 crisis, several regional governments have shown exceptional creativity by sourcing guinea pigs, native potatoes, and nutritious vegetables from local family farms. These models that promote direct local procurement can be expanded in structural food aid and emergency responses. However, agility of the system to work around regulatory hurdles related to traceability, innocuity and transparency will be required.

New decentralized modality of retail during COVID-19 from the back of a truck
Decentralized corner selling to prevent crowding at markets during COVID-19
8. Take the pulse of landrace conservation through youth engagement

The on-farm conservation status of agrobiodiversity can only be managed by measuring it. We need to adapt what birdwatchers do so well for bird species to crop diversity monitoring at the varietal level. This is especially important as climate change is projected to drive further loss of non-adapted varieties and the proliferation of those landraces fit for new climate conditions. This adaptive process of ‘survival of the fittest’ can only be documented through agile monitoring. So, how to keep track of the conservation status of 3,000 potato varieties in Peru? Answer: Citizen science and crowdsourcing with rural youth to bridge the digital divide and take the pulse of diversity in the field.

9. Combine local knowledge with formal climate advisory

Farmers and agrobiodiversity in the Andes have co-evolved with climate extremes for thousands of years. Natural indicators to forecast weather, traditional practices to mitigate damage from frost and hail, and the observation of the Pleiades are only three in an arsenal of options that farmer apply to manage agrobiodiversity within the Andes’ extreme climates. Climate models with advanced digital capabilities and increased mobile connectivity offer huge potential to combine formal and local climate information. Participatory agroclimatic monitoring and advisory initiatives have already started to emerge in the Andes.

Farmer family on their field after severe impact of out-of-season frost
Potato landraces with and without damage after out-of-season frost exposure
10. Enhance food literacy for agrobiodiverse diet choices

The response to COVID-19 has inspired an interesting and potentially impactful change to individual diets, as the sales of fast food have plunged and the demand for healthy food has increased. A large portion of the population has rediscovered food preparation at home. In this moment, there is large opportunity for behavioral change education programs and dietary guidelines to promote locally available and desirable agrobiodiversity to nudge food attitudes and practices toward dietary healthier choices.

Blog by Stef de Haan, Andean Initiative, CIP, Lima