Preserving biodiversity through active agriculture

Trondheim conference on Biodiversity 31st May 2016

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to speak here at this conference that brings together representatives from both the agricultural and biodiversity sectors. There is a tradition to describe these sectors as contradictions. Either you must choose food production at the cost of the nature. Or, you can protect biodiversity by prohibiting other activities. As a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, I will not deny that we from time to time happen to have different perspectives, views or priorities than our colleagues in the Ministry of Environment. Nevertheless, in my address to you, I will argue that we very well can combine food production and biodiversity management. Actually, in my opinion, much biodiversity will be lost without active agriculture.

Just look at this photo. A great diversity of potatoes. Different in tastes, colours, shapes and cooking qualities. Different adaptability to various diseases, altitudes and other growing conditions. This diversity of potatoes illustrates the diversity of crops that farmers, local communities and indigenous peoples have preserved and guarded since the dawn of agriculture. This diversity would have been extinct without the contribution by farmers. Moreover, to continue to maintain this agricultural diversity and further develop it, we still depend on farmers. We need farmers to grow a diverse set of varieties of all food crops. We need farmers to maintain the genetic diversity so it continues to adapt to evolution. We need farmers to keep the knowledge and culture associated with the genetic diversity of our food crops. 

The potato has been important to Norwegian food security. For our survival. However, the potato is not Norwegian. The potato is part of our diet because of exchange of genetic diversity. Across borders. Across regions of the world. It has been breed and adapted – to fit new climate conditions, altitudes, soil compositions – and to meet different local tastes and preferences. 

Moreover, genetic diversity will be important to reduce hunger in the future. The Sustainable Development Goal 2 stresses the need to grow more food in order to reduce hunger. To protect genetic diversity is an important part of this strategy. It is impossible to know exactly which genetic properties that we will need in the future. Therefore, we need to be on the safe side and conserve as much as possible.

Peru is the country of origin of potatoes and the home to thousands of different varieties. This photo is from the potato park in Peru in the Andes mountain range. A rich diversity of potatoes are cultivated. But no farmer or local community can grow all varieties at all times. Throughout the years, several types of potatoes have been lost from the fields in Peru. Luckily, these types were part of the rich potato collection of the international potato gene bank in Peru. The local communities in Peru have retrieved potato seeds that they previously had grown, and which are now better adapted to the new climatic conditions. 

Norway has supported this potato park through our contribution to the Benefit-sharing Fund of the International Plant Treaty. This fund supports farmers and local communities who maintain the genetic diversity that underpins all food production. In recognition of the important role of farmers, and as payback for their efforts to manage our global gene pool, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food supports this fund every year. The annual contribution is equal to 0,1 percent of the value of domestic seed sales. This is about 100.000 USD. To Norway, this is a modest contribution. Nevertheless, it constitutes a predictable amount to the Benefit-sharing Fund.

This photo is of Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is owned by Norway. During its first 8 years of operation, more than 870 000 seed samples have been deposited there from seed collections from all over the world. According to FAO, this means that at least 40% of the agricultural biodiversity that is held by gene banks is safeguarded for the future. 

Last August, I had a unique experience at Svalbard. Representatives of indigenous Andean communities had travelled all the way from Peru to leave a safety duplication of their valuable potato seeds in the vault. In traditional costumes, singing a song composed for the event, they carried the potato seeds with great dignity to the designated shelf in the vault. 

My main lesson learnt from this experience, was that I then fully understood that it actually makes a difference. It makes a difference with international collaboration. It makes a difference when we meet at conferences like this and share our experiences. It makes a difference when people makes ambitions goals that they might not experience to be completed in their own life spans. What we do internationally has consequences for the potato farmer in Peru. And what he or she does has consequences for the rest of the world. 

Let me turn to a Norwegian example - the breeding of cows. What you see here is a beautiful bull of Norwegian Red. Last year, Norway's cattle genetics cooperative, Geno, reported record global sales. The Norwegian Red is currently the most popular exported red breed worldwide. It is sold to more than 30 countries. The top five countries are USA, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy and Poland. What is the reason for this export success story? What has Geno done? During the last 40 years, Geno did not select breed for only high production of milk and meat. Systematically, Geno has selected parents based on a wide range of traits such as health, fertility and calving ease. Producers abroad now experience better income with healthier cows. This export success is not only good business for the cooperative. It is also an example of how a sustainable breeding program contributes to the conservation of genetic resources through active use of these resources.

Cows do not only give us milk to drink and meat to eat. They, together with other grazing animals, have created special landscapes that have contributed to more biological diversity. This is a photo of my home region, Valdres. Cultural landscapes are often rich in species. At the same time, they are also highly endangered. It is estimated that about 20% of the red-listed species in Norway occur in cultivated landscapes. Without active management, bushes and trees will cover these biodiversity rich areas. To establish sound management systems, it is therefore important to involve the famers and local communities, ensure that they have the economic and technical capacity needed, and base the management on voluntary cooperation. I believe that such an approach towards management can reduce the potential of conflict between national goals for conservation of biological diversity and food production. During the summers in Valdres, you are likely to see cows grazing on rangeland. We need farmers to maintain the genetic diversity in the cultural landscape. We need farmers to continue the practice of rangeland grazing.

Yes, we need farmers. In addition, you and I can make a difference – as consumers. Both globally and in Norway, there is an increasing demand for local food and for food with a special history.  In Norway, the company "Urfe", which I could translate to "ancient cow", is experiencing increased demand for its products made from native cow species. The photo up to the left is a traditional breed from this region of Norway. Also farmers with a special interest in traditional types of grain have established companies, for example "Økologisk spesial korn", meaning "organic special grain". This green trend gives me an optimistic view of the future. 

It is said that the best way to conserve a plant, is to eat it. I hope you all will contribute to the conservation of genetic resources in Norway by having a tasteful stay in Trondheim – maybe you will even have the possibility to visit the food court of the city! By this remark, I am concluding my address and hope that you all will have a great time at the conference. Thank you very much for your attention.