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[CHENNAI] Crop experts have recommended a host of measures to help tackle plummeting biodiversity and improve the livelihoods of the rural poor.

An international conference in Chennai, India, last week (17 February), examined the links between biodiversity and food and human security. It produced the Chennai Declaration, a nine point plan for boosting biodiversity.

The declaration stresses that biodiversity is the raw material for food and health security, as well as for the biotechnology industry, and that it must be conserved to ensure that it can continue this function, and so that farming systems become climate-resilient.

Biodiversity is decreasing rapidly as habitats are destroyed and replaced by monoculture crop systems and invaded by alien species, said the declaration.

One of the recommendations is to pursue 'biodiverse agriculture' in which different crop varieties are grown to boost the genetic diversity in a given area. New research programmes should characterise and use wild crop species to transfer genes for drought, flood and salinity tolerance into crops.

An associated recommendation emphasises the emerging importance of genebanks to conserve valuable plant and animal genetic material. Varieties should be conserved in local gene, seed and grain banks, the declaration said, to encourage in situ conservation and "strengthen local level crops and food security".

As well as changes in the types of crops and animals that should be farmed, the declaration says that changes should be made to water use and environmental risk management. This in turn will require identifying areas and social groups most vulnerable to climate change.

Other recommendations include integrating government departments across all sectors including rural development, food security and climate change; developing markets for diverse agricultural products and raising biodiversity awareness across all age groups through a "biodiversity literacy campaign".

Annual losses because of the destruction of biodiversity worldwide amount to US$5 trillion, said UN Environment Programme deputy executive director Angela Cropper.

Ajay Parida, executive director of M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, which organised the workshop, told SciDev.Net that helping poor people living in biodiversity-rich areas to use genetic resources will help achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.

Parviz Koohafkan, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization's Rural Development Division, said the declaration would feed into both an international meeting on biodiversity to be held in Nagoya, Japan, in October this year and the next international climate change summit in Mexico in December.