efe-epaBy Belén Delgado Rome

The global diet is largely based on five staple crops and this is taking a toll on the wellbeing of humans and the planet, an agricultural and biodiversity expert said Wednesday.

Of the more than 6,000 species of crops that exist, rice, wheat, corn, millet and sorghum account for 50 percent of what the world's population consumes in a concentrated diet that is beginning to have an impact on the environment, according to Bioversity International, an organization that lobbies to safeguard agriculture and biodiversity.

"What we eat from our plate to an extent determines what happens with agricultural biodiversity," Juan Lucas Restrepo, director general of BI told Efe.

He added that biodiversity is suffering due to the specific and small range of foods that are consumed across the world.

"Farmers have stopped using and have lost 90 percent of the cultivated seeds they had one hundred years ago," Restrepo said.

The "green revolution", which kicked off in the 1950s, has been instrumental in transforming agricultural systems into something that is now far more homogenous.

"The obsession of agricultural policies was to feed the hungry.

"Productivity and competitivity increased by simplifying production systems, shifting towards monoculture techniques, intensifying the use of chemicals and with a considerable genetic improvement," he continued.

Hunger was somewhat diminished but other problems surfaced along the way such as a lack of micronutrients and a rise in obesity levels, which affects around two billion people.

Monoculture plantations are altering ecosystems in a worrying manner due to the ruthless deforestation of vast areas and, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, crop production is directly responsible for threatening six of every 10 species that are in danger of extinction.

The latest report published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned of catastrophe.

One million animal and plant species face the threat of extinction in what IPBES says is an unprecedented global decline of nature that requires urgent action.

During an event organized by the UN on Food and Agriculture last week, Costa Rica's environment minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez said that climate change is a secondary effect of something much larger, given that what is being damaged is the system that supports life on Earth.

As part of celebrations to mark International Day for Biological Diversity on Wednesday, Restrepo is urging the global community to find a solution to the "bottleneck" agriculture finds itself in and to aim to broaden biodiversity by modifying the crops that are cultivated and animals that are farmed.

This would require a shift that would mean farming more with microorganisms that are found in the soil and plants, something that was not used in the techniques of the green revolution, despite its focus on the health of plants, he added.

"In the genetic diversity of plants, there is a large part of the solution to climate change," Restrepo continued.

He gave as an example a type of ancient and tougher wheat found in Ethiopia that works better than the commercial varieties.

His organization, which has teamed up with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, launched 45 years ago when it started a program to safeguard agriculture by creating seed-banks and preserving traditional farming knowledge and methods.

During this time the organization has worked to preserve rocket, oregano, pistachio and farro.

Most recently it has channeled efforts to safeguard quinoa, leafy indigenous vegetables and smaller millets amongst many other highly nutritious foods.

Joyce Njoro, a technical nutrition specialist working with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, said the drive to cultivate crops that have been sidelined will improve the safety of nutrition and increase the revenues of producers whilst ensuring a healthy diet for consumers.

The biggest challenge, Njoro added, is to integrate these crops into the market. EFE-epa