InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Future of Food > Student Materials > Module 11: Human-Environment Interactions > Module 11.1: Resilience, Adaptive Capacity, and Vulnerability (RACV): Agrobiodiversity and Seed Systems > Agrobiodiversity: Biological Diversity and Associated Human Capacity in Agri-food Systems
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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
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Agrobiodiversity: Biological Diversity and Associated Human Capacity in Agri-food Systems

One major way of increasing the resilience and adaptive capacity of agri-food systems in response to perturbations and shocks is to be certain they contain components with high levels of agrobiodiversity.

Here is a standard definition of agrobiodiversity:


Agricultural biodiversity...includes the cornucopia of crop seeds and livestock breeds that have been largely domesticated by indigenous stewards to meet their nutritional and cultural needs, as well as the many wild species that interact with them in food-producing habitats. Such domesticated resources cannot be divorced from their caretakers. These caretakers have also cultivated traditional knowledge about how to grow and process foods.. (which) is the legacy of countless generations of farming, herding and gardening cultures.

This definition is taken from Gary Nabhan's book Where Our Food Comes From and is based on work of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

There are two important points to note about this definition:

  • First, and most importantly, the biological diversity of agri-food systems includes vital coupling to the human system, most directly the people who are growers and their skills, knowledge, and other factors. These growers are "caretakers" in Nabhan's definition; see Fig. 11.1.7 for potato varieties and a representative "caretaker" - a local farmer with working knowledge of these varieties. Agrobiodiversity exists squarely at the intersection of human and natural systems conceptualized in this course.
  • Second, it encompasses both our cultivated species of plants and animals, which are crops and livestock chosen and evolved for production, as well as their still living wild relatives and the biodiversity of the ecosystems associated with this production (both the agroecosystem itself and the surrounding uncultivated ecosystem). Agrobiodiversity production in the natural system must be sufficient to offer positive feedbacks into the human system in order to offer the incentive for continued production.

The above-mentioned points in the definition of agrobiodiversity are illustrated in figure 9.6, which depicts agrobiodiversity as a Coupled Human-Natural System (CNHS).

The growers of agrobiodiversity range widely around the world. They include the people of traditional and indigenous cultures who often live in more remote locations. Many of these people live in mountainous regions and hill lands of the tropics and sub-tropics. Their use of agrobiodiversity in agri-food systems is reflected in certain global centers of diversity, as shown in the map that we presented in Module 2 regarding the sites of crop domestication in the early history of food systems. Such centers are sometimes called "Vavilov Centers" in recognition of the pioneering contribution of the scientist Nikolay Vavilov in the 1920s.

Increasingly it's recognized that significant agrobiodiversity also occurs outside the Vavilov Centers. For example, many urban and peri-urban dwellers grow small fields and gardens as part of local, small-scale agri-food systems. Producers of diversified production for local markets in North America and Europe are still another important group of agrobiodiversity-growers.

The extent of agrobiodiversity, in terms of crops and livestock, may vary from only a few types in a field or farm to many dozens. Agri-food systems with only a few types are quite important since they can confer significant resilience to perturbations and stressors. For example, cultivation of only a few types of barley, wheat, or maize ("corn" in the U.S.) among neighboring farms and communities can offer a much higher degree of resilience than the monoculture of a single type.

Equally important is the case of the megadiverse agri-food systems. In the potato fields of the Andes Mountains of western South America, for example, a farmer may grow as many as 20-30 major types of potatoes in a single field. (Figure 11.1.11). Here, in tha global "Vavilov Center" of the Andes mountains, high levels of agrobiodiversity are integral to the agri-food system as a result of factors in the human system (skills, knowledge, labor-time, cultural and culinary preferences) and the natural system (highly varied climate and soil conditions characteristic of tropical mountains).


These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »