Biodiversity is a recent word. It was used for the first time in Washington in 1986 by an entomologist (Edward O. Wilson) and can be a misunderstood topic. In actual fact it should be a simple concept, because at its essence, it signifies nature, life itself, and the diversity of life on many levels – from the smallest and most basic (genes – the building blocks of life) to animal and plant species, up to the most complex levels (ecosystems). All these levels intersect and influence each other and each other’s evolution.
Studies from the University of Stanford have compared the species and varieties of an ecosystem to rivets that hold an airplane together. If we remove the rivets, for a while nothing will happen and the airplane will continue to operate. But little by little the structure will weaken and, at a certain point, just removing one rivet will cause the plane to crash.
In the history of the planet, everything has a beginning and an end, and in every era, many species have become extinct. But never at the horrifying rate of recent years, one that is a thousand times greater than previous eras.
This summer after a thorough study of many years, the prestigious University of Exeter in England declared that the earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction (with the fifth, 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs disappeared).
Yet there is a substantial difference between this and the extinctions of the past: the cause. For the first time man is responsible. Man continues to destroy rainforests, cement the land, pollute waters and grounds with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and accumulate plastic in the oceans. And he insists on excluding the earth’s last custodians: those small-scale farmers, shepherds and fishers that know and respect the fragile equilibrium of nature.
Slow Food started its work with biodiversity in 1997 and our foot in the door – that since the beginning has given us a unique perspective – was food.
If biodiversity disappears what will happen to our food?
Together with the plants and wild animals, the plants domesticated by man, breeds selected (for milk or meat) will also disappear. According to the FAO, 75% of plant varieties have been irreversibly lost. In the USA the figure is 95%. Today 60% of the world’s food is based on three cereals: wheat, rice and corn. Not on the thousands of rice varieties selected by farmers that once were cultivated in India and China, or on the thousands of varieties of corn that were grown in Mexico, but on the few hybrid varieties selected and sold to farmers by a handful of multinationals.
Slow Food’s first intuition was this: look after domestic biodiversity. Meaning not just the panda or the seal, but also the Gascon chicken and the Alpago lamb; not just the edelweiss, but also the violet asparagus from Albenga.
But not just this. We became interested in taste and the knowledge connected to it, and traditional techniques of breeding, growing, and processing. And this led us to our second intuition: on our Ark of Taste – a catalogue of products to save – we have also included transformed foods: breads, cheese, cured meats, sweets. Because this is also biodiversity.
Once we had identified our field of action, how did we work? We linked diverse worlds that normally didn’t interact: farmers, cooks, veterinarians, journalists… In order to achieve two objectives:
1 – Help small-scale farmers:
To save a breed, we didn’t start from genetic selection; to save an apple variety, we didn’t start from a collection of varieties. Instead, we began by seeking out the shepherds that bred that certain breed, the farmers that still cultivated that apple, and we went and spoke to them. With this crucial step, the Presidia project was launched, that today is supporting producers in every corner of the world.
2 – Raise awareness about biodiversity:
We need to work with producers and experts, but also with schools, journalists, restaurant and so on. We need to write and tell these stories of producers with every tool at our disposal, because these themes transcend university lecture halls and scientific institutions, and become the heritage of us all.
Biodiversity can’t be saved by scientists alone, nor by the powerful of the world, because it is of no interest to the market. And it’s probable that Noah won’t be arriving with his Ark.
This battle, therefore, is one that needs to be taken up by us, together with all the people we manage to involve, on our lands, every day – with our Ark of Taste, Presidia, Earth Markets, community and school gardens, and the thousands of other ideas still to come.
Because the battle to save biodiversity isn’t like any other battle.
It’s the battle for the life of our planet.
Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity General Secretary
You can play an active role in saving your local biodiversity by nominating a product to the Ark of Taste, our catalogue of endangered foods.