How crop diversity could help secure our future food supply


Diversity within maize. Image source: Sam Fentress, CC BY-SA 2.0,

16 October is World Food Day (#WFD2016); this year’s theme is ‘Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.’ Jennifer Cunniff, plant scientist in CABI’s editorial team looks at how harnessing crop diversity is vital for us to meet the challenge.

Of the wide variety of edible plant species growing on our planet it’s amazing how few of them we actually include in our diet. Around 30 000 edible plant species are known, yet only 30 of these feed the world, and we are heavily reliant on a handful of cereals – rice, bread wheat, maize, millets and sorghum – provide 60% of the energy intake of the world population (FAO). This narrowing of our food base largely started with the advent of farming – before then, there is plentiful archaeological evidence that shows we were foraging across a much wider breadth of plant species (e.g. Weiss et al. 2004; Fairbairn et al. 2006). Once we formed settled societies we began to focus on crops that offered the best level of return and were best adapted to the cultivated environments we created. Furthermore, even though multiple accessions1 of our widely grown cereal species exist (naturally and through breeding) only a few dozen are grown on a wide scale. This strategy has consequences – genetic variability for adaptation to future climate change is lost.

1 A single collected variety or cultivar. It could be a wild variety, a landrace or a bred cultivar.


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Focusing food security efforts where they are needed

The current World Summit on Food Security , as noted in an earlier blog, is a major effort to focus agriculture to lower risks of starvation and economic insecurity. But how can researchers and planners work out what is needed where? John Dixon of ACIAR and his co-authors describe a major Food and Agriculture Organization – World Bank initiative to classify world farming systems to enhance food security and help reduced poverty in a new paper.


Writing in CABI Reviews, Dixon says that the framework characterizes farming systems in terms of land quality and market access.  These elements are crucial in shaping development of farming systems and household livelihood strategies in ways that boost farm income and ensure delivery of cereals that are central to food security.

In their review, Dixon and his co-authors look at the various strategies for reducing poverty and conclude that farm intensification and diversification look to be the most promising ways of achieving that in many cereal farming systems. They say that the importance of intensification and diversification in differing farming systems can be used as a basis for priority setting and targeting of agricultural research to enhance food security and reduce poverty.

In other words, classification can be a key tool in deciding which farming practices are most likely to help the poorest and reduce their exposure to economic and climatic change.


The review, “Forty years of farming systems classification for enhanced food security and poverty reduction” by John Dixon, Jon Hellin, Xiaoyun Li and Glenn Hyman appears in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources 2009 4, No. 060.


Also published this month: “Challenges to ensuring food security through wheat” by R. Chand:  CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2009, 4, No. 065.


For other recent reviews focused on food security, see the blog entry

Food Price Hikes – Crisis and Opportunity?


For other recent blogs on food security, click here