The Andes region is simultaneously a global hotspot of biodiversity and one of Latin America’s areas most threatened by climate change. Often overlooked in terms of its contributions to the international food system, the Andes produces about 22% of food exports worldwide and is known as the “breadbasket” of Latin America. Running the length of the western coast of South America, the Andes are home to 30,000 plant species and 33,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. If that’s not enough to prove their incredible biodiversity, over half of the world’s 4,000 agricultural varieties can also be found in the many rural mountain communities situated throughout the region.
The Andes are the center of origin and diversity of some of the world’s key domesticated crops, including potatoes, quinoa, maize and beans. Through this ecological contribution, agricultural systems in the Andes act as the backbone of the global food system; supplying the world with some of the most important crops needed to combat malnutrition and food insecurity. In addition to the diverse range of plant and animal life, the Andes hosts 85 of the planet’s 120 life zones, supporting a wide range of ecosystems and landscapes. These extreme environments represent three large climatic zones and a number of microclimates, resulting in a diverse range of agricultural management regimes and production practices.
As the world looks for answers to solve the impending threats of climate change on food security, the mix of high crop biodiversity and diverse climate in the Andes make the region an increasingly important place of study. One organization, The International Potato Center (CIP), works to do just that through the implementation of a program called the Andean Initiative.
The CIP is a research facility, based out of Lima Peru, which seeks to use scientific research to both improve agricultural resource management within the Andes region and promote food security and poverty alleviation in developing countries around the world. Their work on the Andean Initiative is an extension of these goals, as it aims to uncover solutions to create more resilient food systems through a mix of scientific research and conservation.
Launched in July of 2020, the Andean Initiative is a 10-year plan which not only seeks to elevate food systems and food security in the Andes and beyond, but promote social and economic equality for Latin American farmers.
With the slogan “planet, plants, and people”, the initiative has the potential to advance “agrobiodiversity, climate resilience and healthy diets to help build a robust food system that is sustainable, inclusive and beneficial to both human and planetary health.” says Ginya Truitt Nakata, one of CIP’s founders.
“The unique qualities of the Andes provide opportunity for investigation at the intersection of climate change and agrobiodiversity."
—@GTruittNakata, Regional Director for Latin America And the Caribbean at @cipotato#Foodprize20@CIMMYT@IFPRI@BiovIntCIAT_eng pic.twitter.com/EZoFqzX4xk
— International Potato Center (@Cipotato) October 14, 2020
The initiative plans to create a network of ‘Andean Co-Laboratories’ across the region, where scientists, policy-makers and stakeholders can work with local governments, NGOs and indigenous peoples on innovations in support of the project’s goals.
During a July conference to promote the launch of the Andean Initiative, some of the project’s founders emphasized the importance of the Andes as a carbon reservoir. With 6.5 million hectares of upland peat soils and 3.1 million hectares of forest, the Andes has the ability to absorb two times more carbon than the Amazon jungle. This has enormous implications for the future power of the Andes in significantly reducing levels of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The founders also stressed the region’s high biodiversity which contains globally prominent superfoods as well as thousands of unexplored crop varieties.
Roger Thurow, Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, describes how these unique characteristics make the Andes such an important place of study when working toward sustainable global food systems. He explains that “The Andes sits right at the crux of this great challenge we face as humanity” as we work to answer the question of how to nourish the population while living within our environmental boundaries. As we see an “ever growing and more prosperous population worldwide, we also see a growing demand on the food system which takes an enormous toll on the planet.”
— Iniciativa Andina (@IniciativAndina) July 23, 2020
The founders stressed that some of the threats to agriculture seen in the Andes, such as dwindling biodiversity and crop varieties under pressure, “should be of concern to all of us” due to their global impacts and the lessons these struggles can teach the world. Thurow says the work of the CIP “acknowledges both the possibilities and the peril” which face this region, a theme which is at the forefront of the Andean Initiative.
As Andean Initiative Lead and Senior Scientist Stef de Haan wrote in a recent op-ed about the project, “If the Amazon are the lungs of the planet, then the Andes are its lifeblood”–a message which we should all take to heart. Without placing more focus on the Andes, the world may fail to stand a chance against the impending threats of climate change. The future of agriculture and food systems worldwide are at stake, but through the work of the CIP and the Andean Initiative, the global community can begin to uncover solutions to the challenges which lie ahead.
— Iniciativa Andina (@IniciativAndina) May 31, 2020
To learn more about the CIP, you can visit their facebook page, The International Potato Center, or follow their instagram @cip_potato. You can also subscribe to their newsletter https://cipotato.org/newsletter-subscription/ to learn more about the organization’s projects and how you can get involved to join the fight for sustainable global food systems.
Nicola is a graduate of Dickinson College with a Bachelors Degree in Environmental Science and a minor in Earth Sciences. During her time at Dickinson, Nicola developed a strong interest in sustainable agriculture and innovative sustainability solutions which empower individuals and their communities. Nicola has had considerable experience working at an environmental conservation non-profit where she wrote grant proposals, drafted local environmental policy bylaws and created educational science programs for local schools. Nicola has always been passionate about the power of writing and the ability to share an individual’s experience through a story. In her work as a Latin American Correspondent, she hopes to share the stories of the people and organizations making positive environmental changes within communities across Latin America. She hopes that through these stories, she can shed light on both the progress and struggles of individuals throughout these regions.