CIP’s Andean Initiative takes flight

A fascinating 90-minute international panel discussion this morning kicked off the International Potato Center’s (CIP) Andean Initiative, a ten-year program to preserve the unique biodiversity of the Andes mountains while building a climate-resilient future with healthy diets for all people.

By keeping a keen focus on “the planet, plants and people,” CIP’s Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Ginya Truitt Nakata, says the Initiative has potential to elevate “agrobiodiversity, climate resilience and heathy diets to help build a robust food system that is sustainable, inclusive and beneficial to both human and planetary health. The lessons learned, we foresee, will apply not only in the Andes but for other regions of the world where food systems are disrupted and small-scale farmers struggle to earn more income.”

To celebrate the start of the Initiative, CIP assembled a panel of experts to share their thoughts about the opportunities and challenges, and why the Andes are the right place to host such an ambitious program.

On that question, panelist Roger Thurow, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, summed the thoughts of all the speakers: “Because of its growing importance in food production and great biodiversity, [Latin America] needs to be at the center of all discussions on future food systems. Without Latin America, there’s no hope of moving the needle on global malnutrition, poverty, and food insecurity. Neglecting Latin America undermines all other efforts.”

Maximo Torero Cullen, the Chief Economist and Assistant Director General at Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, seconded Thurow’s comment using the potato to illustrate his point: “Its variety is what makes potato special. The diversity of micronutrients… in potatoes are unparalleled. Even with this knowledge, we need to know more about all crops in the Andes because the diversity in food crops here will help us improve resilience for food systems everywhere.”

 The panel stressed that the Andean Initiative was not simply about food or food systems, as each speaker highlighted the connections between crops, climate change, carbon sequestration and value chains for inclusive growth – a complex web of relationships that face unique challenges at high altitudes where rising temperatures, receding glaciers, and unpredictable rainfall patterns have made farming and livelihoods evermore precarious.

The high-altitude peatlands in the Andes, for instance, hold precious water and rich carbon stocks equal to the carbon in the Amazon rainforest. But, according to the Conservation and Governance Director at World Wildlife Fund Colombia, Luis German Naranjo, these peatlands are under threat from cattle grazing and transformation into croplands. The solution, he urged, lie in finding better opportunities for farmers to grow crops at lower elevations so the important ecosystem services of peatlands can be retained.

Stef de Haan, the Andean Initiative Coordinator, echoed Naranjo’s point about creating greater value propositions for smallholder farmers as a means to preserve biodiversity. As global consumers have begun developing appetites for Andean “superfoods,” de Haan stressed the importance of creating supply chains to promote a wider variety of foods while also generating more value for farmers.

Beyond the marketplace, all the panelists noted, the biodiversity of the Andes holds essential opportunities for building resilience against climate change. “For the long term future of the planet, de Haan said, “We need to be able to watch the evolution of the 4,000 varieties of potato to learn how they thrive or disappear under new conditions while using traits in native potatoes and wild relatives to create even more opportunity to develop better varieties for all regions.”

To turn these aspirations into reality, Elizabeth Jimenez, a scientist at Bolivia’s CIDES-UMSA, said a focus on social equality would be essential, as Latin America features the starkest rates of inequality in the world.

“But we should not just focus on vertical inequality, such as we learn from GINI scores,” Jimenez said. “We also need to focus on the horizontal inequality, the differences between ethnicities and social groups who have been historically deprived equal access to opportunities and resources.” On this point, Truitt Nakata, referenced the fast spread of COVID in Latin America as a reflection of these inequalities: “People in the informal economy can’t afford supermarkets, and they need to feed their families, so they rely on outdoor markets where protocols are less rigorously enforced.”

Stronger food systems, inclusive growth and robust biodiversity could address challenges such as this. And the is the type of regional innovation platform equipped to inspire improvements in agrobiodiversity use, climate action, social inclusion and food system improvements. The research and innovations developed as part of the Andean Initiative will strengthen the One CGIAR commitment to food system transformation and drive progress in delivering the 2030 Agenda, in western South America and other mountain regions across the globe.

 The launch of the Andean Initiative will continue with a series of virtual events running through September. You can view the events calendar on their webpage.

A summary of the Andean Initiative is available here.

A full version of the Andean Initiative’s 10-year strategy can be downloaded here.

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