The Andes region is an agrobiodiversity hotspot, the cradle of crops ranging from potato to quinoa, but it is suffering the effects of climate change at a faster rate than the rest of the world. The International Potato Center (CIP) has created an Andean Initiative to study climate change’s impacts in the high Andes while helping the region’s farmers adapt to and mitigate it with the help of their crop diversity.
The initiative was launched with an event at the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue, in Des Moines, Iowa, where experts from the research, development and business worlds discussed the challenges and opportunities for improving nutrition, incomes, biodiversity conservation and climate resilience.
“The Andean region began suffering climate extremes long before climate change became a global issue,” said Ginya Truitt Nakata, CIP Regional Director for Latin America and Caribbean. “It is a laboratory of sorts where we can study and address the impacts of climate change on agriculture, nutrition, agrobiodiversity and the continued release of carbon, and learn what the rest of the world can do before the average global temperatures reach 2 degrees Celsius.”
CIP Senior Scientist Stef de Haan explained that highland farmers have moved their potato fields an average of 350 m up mountain slopes since the 1970s to escape higher temperatures and pest and disease pressure. This results in the release of carbon from a high-altitude peat ecosystem that sequesters as much carbon per hectare as some Amazon forests. Other farmers have abandoned the highlands entirely, moving to cities or into the Amazon lowlands, where they work in illegal goldmines or cut down forests to plant crops, contributing to climate change,
“We will develop a tool for assessing changes in land use, while promoting sustainable practices to help farmers preserve soil carbon and improve their harvests. We will also promote on-farm agrobiodiversity conservation and recommend the cultivation of more nutritious, resilient varieties,” De Haan said.
Jesus Quintana, Head of the Andean and Southern Cone region for the International Fund for Agricultural Development – co-host of the World Food Prize side event – noted that 70 percent of the food consumed in Latin America is produced by smallholder farmers. He added that even though the Andes hold a wealth of agrobiodiversity, the region suffers high levels of poverty.
“Andean communities should be at the center of efforts to address these challenges. They’re the most affected and need to be part of the solution,” Quintana said. “We need to start by involving rural people in the conservation of biodiversity, as CIP is doing.”
According to Mark Edge, head of partnerships for developing countries at Bayer, even though Andean farms differ from those of most of the company’s customers, some Bayer technologies could be adapted to improve production in the region. “We want to make technologies available in other places and for other crops. It’s all about how you can get the most out of a crop with the least impact,” he said.
“We live in a society that needs crop diversity and recognizes its value,” Edge added.
“CIP will take advantage of market demand for Andean crops to improve the incomes and diets of smallholder families, and help people stay in their communities,” De Haan said. He added that these efforts will build on the success of an earlier CIP initiative that resulted in a three-fold increase in the export value of Peru’s native potato varieties between 2010 and 2015.
Andrew Jones, Associate Professor or Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told the audience there was a common misconception that farmers who grow an array of crops earn less than those who specialize. Research shows the opposite is the case. Farmers growing a diversity of crops earn higher incomes and consume more diverse diets, in part because they purchase much of what they eat.
“It is important to consider the role of markets. They are the number one driver of the diet diversity for farm families,” Jones said.
Roger Thurow, Senior Fellow on Global Food and Agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, observed that the situation in the Andes reminds him of things he has observed in Central America and Asia.
“The Andes are right at the crux of these great challenges facing humanity: nourishing the planet while living within its environmental boundaries,” Thurow said.