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Key concepts

Agricultural Biodiversity

Agricultural biodiversity refers to the variety and variability of animals, plants, and micro-organisms on earth that are important to food and agriculture. It comprises:

  • the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds, etc.) and species used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture (including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries) for the production of food, fodder, fibre, fuel and pharmaceuticals

  • the diversity of species that support production (soil biota, pollinators, predators, etc.) and those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic)

  • the diversity of the agro-ecosystems themselves.

Agricultural Biodiversity takes into account not only genetic, species and agro-ecosystem diversity but also cultural diversity, which influences human interactions at all levels. The definition thus includes domesticated, semi-domesticated, manipulated or “wild”, with no clear cut demarcation between natural and managed plant and animal populations.

Agricultural biodiversity fulfils a number of important roles, including:

  • Providing food and livelihood security. Dynamic and complex rural livelihoods usually rely on plant and animal diversity, both wild and in different stages of domestication. Different types of agricultural biodiversity are used by different people at different times and in different places, and so contribute to livelihood strategies in a complex fashion

  • Ensuring productive and environmental sustainability. In addition to contributing to environmental sustainability, agricultural biodiversity helps sustain many production functions both in low external input and high input-output agriculture: soil organic matter decomposition, nutrient cycling, pollination, pest control, yield functions, soil and water conservation, action on climate and water cycling, biodiversity conservation and influence on landscape structure

  • Supporting development. Agricultural biodiversity can provide the basis for biotechnologies (old and new), natural product development, ecotourism, and other activities important for well being and income generation in local, national and global economies.


The term “farmers” is used here to include people who grow crops and harvest tree products as well as those who work with livestock such as pastoralists and fisher people.


Agroecosystems are those "ecosystems that are used for agriculture" and food collection. Agroecosystems comprise polycultures, monocultures, and mixed systems, including crop-livestock systems (rice - fish), agro-forestry, agro-silvo-pastoral systems, home gardens, urban farming, aquaculture as well as rangelands, pastures and fallow lands. Their interactions with human activities, including socio-economic activity and socio-cultural diversity, are determinant.


A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets and activities required to make a living. In pursuing different livelihood strategies, the following assets are key:

  • Human skills, knowledge, good health and ability to labour

  • Natural assets from which resource flows useful for livelihoods are derived (e.g. land, water, biodiversity, environmental resources)

  • Physical means of production and basic infrastructure (transport, shelter, energy and communications)

  • Financial resources available to people (savings, supplies of credit, regular remittances, pensions)

  • Social networks, membership of groups, relationships of trust and access to wider institutions of society upon which people draw

  • Cultural assets- identity, meaning of the “good life”
    and culturally valued ways of satisfying fundamental human needs (e.g. subsistence, protection, affection, participation, leisure/idleness, freedom).

A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining its ecological base.

Food Systems - Global and Local

Agricultural biodiversity is embedded in several larger systems,- in particular food systems.

Food systems include not just the production aspects of food and fibre but also the preparation of agricultural inputs, processing, distribution, access, use, food recycling and waste. Food chains,- from the point where food and fibres originate to where they are consumed and disposed of-, are important components of the food system.

Food systems range from the local to the global. Some of the key differences between local and global food systems relate to the ecology of food production, markets, rural life and governance.

Ecology of Food Production

Small, diverse agroecosystems are the backbone of local food systems in most parts of the world. Localised food systems start at the household level and expand to neighbourhood, municipal and regional levels, -often using assets and resources internal to those local contexts.

With globalisation agricultural production becomes increasingly industrialised and linked to international trade and long distance transportation.

The globalisation of food and farming means a larger “ecological footprint”-higher energy use, transport, CO2 emissions, resource use, waste, pollution and loss of biological diversity.


How industrial agriculture produces an egg


How a diverse agro-ecosystem produces an egg


Ecology of marketing and social life

Local food systems usually mean shorter distances and closer trading links between producers, processors and consumers.

Local food systems usually lead to:

  • more money circulating within local communities

  • more local shops

  • higher employment

  • more interaction between community members

  • higher profits for farmers and lower prices for consumers

With the globalisation of food systems, the distance between producers and consumers grows as the production, marketing and distribution of food become increasingly centralised and controlled by ever fewer giant corporations.

Supermarkets and middlemen take an ever greater proportion of the prices paid by consumers in the globalising food system. In the USA, for example, farmers get an increasingly smaller slice of the pie

Fewer and bigger supermarket chains now tend to dominate the food market, turning food into a global “commodity”.



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