A farmer in Cameroon

Agribusiness and commodity traders are thin on the ground at this week’s FAO conference in Rome on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition. Despite its title, this event is of little interest to Big Food. After all, this conference is about feeding people – especially poor people in rural communities – not about feeding global commodity markets.

Sponsored by agriculture and development agencies, this conference – if it was "selling" anything at all - was "selling" biodiversity by sharing knowledge.

Agricultural biodiversity entails growing a variety of plants on a smallholding or farm instead of a large expanse of a single plant in monocultures of maize or soybean or plantations of oil palms. Biodiversity can not only provide food and a nutritious varied diet, but also fodder and ecosystem services like pest control by encouraging beneficial predators and fertilization by planting legumes and fertilizer trees.

Biodiversity is also the basis and the result, of a good forest conservation policy. A common misconception is that sound agricultural policies cannot go hand in hand with the protection of forested areas.

A smallholder rotating cereals and vegetables, growing coffee under a canopy of fruit or cocoa trees or oil palms will contribute to their household’s food security and nutrition by hedging their bets – if one crop fails, others can fill the gap and provide the family with a varied diet. Furthermore forest canopies continue to be protected and important corridors maintained for wildlife.

Any surplus fruit or cash crops of coffee and cocoa can supplement the family income. By relying on biodiversity to deter pest infestations and provide fertilisation, the smallholder reduces reliance on external inputs, like expensive chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which in turn prevents the pollution of soil and water and even improves the household balance sheet.

Farmer in DRC

Ecological farming relies on agro-biodiversity by working with nature. In contrast, uncontrolled industrial agriculture threatens to suppress biodiversity by promoting an agricultural model that relies on monocultures of plants like GE cereals or plantations of oil palm or cocoa, to the exclusion of any other plant.

The lack of biodiversity increases the vulnerability of the monoculture to pest infestations, that industrial agriculture usually "solves" by selling toxic chemical pesticides, which often kill organisms indiscriminately, including beneficial insects like pest predators and pollinators such as bees.

This is why you will not find many corporate interests represented at this FAO conference. There’s no money to be made selling knowledge about agro-biodiversity to poor smallholder farmers. Indeed, there would be money lost for agribusiness with the wide-scale adoption of ecological farming.

By following a strategy of "Zero deforestation" countries that are home to large forested areas can ensure food sovereignty for their people by making the most of their natural resources without putting them at risk.

If smallholders are growing a variety of plants that provide a varied diet, they won’t be suffering from nutrient deficiency. This will sap demand for one of the latest technology fixes being developed by Big Food to make more money from our broken food system - biofortification.  Whether it is Golden Rice to "solve" the vitamin A deficiency in Asia or Golden Sorghum to "solve" the vitamin A, zinc and iron deficiencies in Africa.

It would also provide a raison d’etre for releasing GMOs into the environment. There will be no market for these false solutions if smallholders embrace agro-biodiversity. As one Asian blogger put it: "the best solution to tackle Vitamin A Deficiency already exists and it’s called vegetables."