Skip to main content

Facts & Figures on Food and Biodiversity


Facts about Agricultural Diversity

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (the FAO) estimates that there are roughly a quarter million plant varieties available for agriculture, but less than 3 percent of these are in use today. With disuse comes neglect and possibly extinction.

  • Modern agriculture is concentrated on a small number of varieties designed for intensive farming. This has dramatically reduced the diversity of plants available for research and development. This trend, and the increasing industrialization of agriculture, are key factors in what is known as “genetic erosion.”

  • The world’s food supply depends on about 150 plant species. Of those 150, just 12 provide three-quarters of the world’s food. More than half of the world’s food energy comes from a limited number of varieties of three “mega-crops”: rice, wheat, and maize.

  • The world’s poor depend on plants for as much as 90 percent of their needs -- food, fuel, medicine, shelter, transportation. Approximately 1.4 billion people, mostly resource-poor farmers, use and improve their own crop seeds. This helps to maintain and enhance the genetic diversity of crops.

  • Millions of resource-poor farmers eke out their livelihoods on small parcels of marginal land in remote, mountainous, or arid regions. Yet it is estimated they produce as much as 20 percent of the world’s food -- largely without the benefit of modern agricultural research.

  • The majority of the world’s resource-poor farmers are women, and women produce more than half of all the food that is grown around the world ¾ in some regions as much as 80 percent.

​Facts about the Foods People Rely On

Wheat, rice, and maize provide just over 50 percent of the world’s plant-derived food energy. Sorghum, millet, potatoes, sweet potatoes, soybean and sugar provide another 25 percent. It is vital to ensure continued genetic diversity of these major crops to avoid vulnerability to diseases that could affect production worldwide.

About wheat...

  • Wheat is the most widely grown cereal grain, occupying 17 percent of the total cultivated land in the world. Wheat is the staple food for 35 percent of the world’s population, and provides more calories and protein in the world’s diet than any other crop.

  • Approximately 32 percent of the wheat-growing regions in developing countries experience some type of drought stress during the growing season. Drought-stressed regions are defined as those where the amount of water available, mainly through rainfall, is less than 500 millimetres.

  • Asia plants more than half of the developing world’s wheat crop. Wheat is also important in eastern and southern Africa. Wheat consumption has risen throughout Africa, and 90 percent of increased consumption in the past two decades has been provided by imports.

  • Asia produces and consumes about 90 percent of the world’s rice. But rice is also a staple food in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a leading source of protein for the poorest 20 percent of the tropical population, supplying more protein per person than beans, beef, or milk.

  • About one million farmers in Latin America and the Caribbean depend on rice as their main source of energy, employment, and income. About 80 percent of these farmers are resource-poor smallholders, planting on less than 3 hectares of land.

  • Over the past 30 years demand for rice in West Africa has grown at an annual rate of 6 percent. Meanwhile consumption of traditional cereals -- mainly sorghum and millet -- has fallen. The share of rice in cereals consumed has grown from 15 percent to 25 percent over the same period.

About maize...

  • Asia plants almost half of the developing world’s maize crop. Three-quarters of the maize consumed in South Asia is consumed directly as food, but in East Asia most maize is used for animal feed.

  • Maize accounts for more than 40 percent of total cereal production in sub-Saharan Africa. Africans use maize almost entirely to feed themselves. Eighty-five percent of the maize produced in eastern and southern Africa is used to feed people.

  • The maize found even in remote areas of Mexico today is not the same as the maize found in the same location hundreds of years ago. Maize is an open-pollinating species that readily exchanges genes with other maize plants growing nearby. Farmers long ago recognized this as a way to adapt varieties to their own needs. Mexican farmers say that their maize “gets tired.” When this happens, they seek other varieties to mix with it.

About other crops...

  • Many “minor crops” are important to millions of people in different parts of the developing world -- especially the poor. For example, cassava provides more than half the plant food energy for people in Central Africa.

  • Groundnuts, pigeon peas, lentils, cowpeas, yams, bananas, and plantains are food staples for millions of the world’s poorest people. Yet most of these receive little attention from agricultural researchers.

  • Wild species -- some would call them weeds -- are an important source of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, especially in poor rural households in developing countries. Wild species can be important resource for crop improvement. For example, at least seven different vegetables are derived from a single wild cabbage species called Brassica oleracea.

Lessons from IDRC-supported Biodiversity Research

In many parts of the developing world agricultural diversity is an important part of people’s culture. In Nepal, for example, certain varieties of rice are used as gifts, while others are used as medicine. Sometimes growing a diversity of crops is simply a way of making the best use of local conditions.  

  • Farmers and researchers too often work in different realities. Researchers breed plant hybrids in the laboratory. These hybrids are successful only under ideal conditions, requiring just the right inputs of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. For most farmers, such conditions simply don’t exist. As a result, instead of obtaining poor yields using these hybrids, the farmers continue to do the best they can with their own local varieties.

  • Women all over the world play key roles in the management of agricultural biodiversity. Women provide much of the farm labour, process and store grains and other crops, and prepare the food. Because in many places they also preserve the best seed for planting, they play a key role in managing plant genetic resources.

  • Scientists can learn from farmers, and farmers can learn from scientists. A farmer’s knowledge of local varieties and the environment are unmatched, for example. Likewise, the complex techniques of modern plant breeding have much to offer.

  • Agricultural diversity helps to provide stability for farmers who grow a range of crops. If one particular crop or variety fails, the others help make up the difference. It’s like having insurance against unfavourable conditions.

  • Agricultural diversity is alive and well in many places around the world. Traditional crops and cropping systems, however, are under increasing pressure. These cropping systems include grains, root crops, legumes, spices, forages, and so-called “wild” foods such as herbs and medicinal plants.

  • A study in the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, revealed that helping small farmers identify the traditional varieties they want and then providing them with inexpensive seed is one of the most important contributions institutions can make to genetic resource conservation and rural development.

  • Much knowledge has been gained and many skills acquired through learning-by-doing, as well as through projects designed specifically with training in mind.

  • Research tools and methods that can be adapted easily for use in other countries are an important way to get maximum value -- and maximum impact -- from research investments.