Agricultural biodiversity provides not only food and income but also raw materials for clothing, shelter, medicines, breeding new varieties, and performs other services such as maintenance of soil fertility and biota, and soil and water conservation, all of which are essential to human survival.
Agro-biodiversity can be defined as variety and variability of animal, plant and microbial organisms on earth that are important for food and agriculture. It is an important sub-set of genetic resources as it is the basis of food security and a fundamental feature of farming systems around the world.
Sri Lanka is considered as a valuable repository of crop germplasm and agro-biodiversity. It has a rich treasure of rice genes and over 2,800 varieties have been recorded in the country. These varieties show great adaptability to a wide range of climatic and soil conditions and pest and disease problems. They also exhibit variation in grain size and quality, some with medicinal properties and fragrance and others that are used for cultural and ritual reasons also show differences in maturity period.
Besides rice germplasm, Sri Lanka is also rich in cereals, including millets, sorghum and maize; legumes, including cowpea, soybean, winged bean, ground nut, pigeon pea; banana and other fruits such as citrus, mango, avocado, jak fruit; root and tuber crops; medicinal plants; leafy and other vegetables; spices including pepper; cardamom; betel and chillie. Among these are 500 selections of pepper and several wild species. There are ten wild races of cardamom, and several indigenous varieties of betel and chillie. Similarly, there are many varieties of vegetables such as cucurbits, tomato and eggplants. Selection and cultivation of crop plants over several thousands of years by various traditional and modem farming practices and the country’s eco-edaphic variability are two reasons for high genetic diversity of crops in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s rich agrobiodiversity has both global importance and a central place in the livelihoods of traditional farming communities. About 1.8 million families and 75% of the country’s labour force depend on agriculture and on the diversity that is present in and around the farm, which includes some 230 different fruits, 82 vegetables 16 cereals and legumes, 20 spices, 20 species of edible freshwater fish and over 1,500 medicinal plant species. Many different crop varieties and livestock breeds are also found and these constitute an important resource for rural communities, providing types adapted to different situations and uses. This rich diversity is under threat from a variety of factors that include unsuitable production practices, changing land use patterns, the introduction of modern, often poorly adapted, varieties and climate change itself.