National Geographic Society Study Finds Small Farms in Jamaica Promote Biodiversity

Farmers in Jamaica’s John Crow Mountains grow, on average, 87 useful plant varieties, which include an unusually high number of foods, on a single plot of land, according to a study sponsored by the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration. It is difficult to tell, sometimes, where the lush forest lands end and the cultivated lands begin because farmers there grow their food in harmony with the wild plants of the area. By doing so, small farmers help to preserve crop varieties and other species of plants that are unique to Jamaica. The farmers grow a mix of plantain, banana, mango, pepper, bean, yam, coconut, breadfruit, timber and medicinal plants on plots surrounded by wild trees and shrubs that help to keep the nutrient-rich soils in place on the steep slopes of the mountains. By growing a wide variety of plants, small farmers in Jamaica contribute to food security by maintaining biological diversity in agricultural plantings, or agrobiodiversity. Protecting this diversity has become ever more difficult throughout the world as most of the cultivated land on the planet is dedicated to producing the few staples eaten by humans. The Food and Agriculture Organization has determined that just 12 percent of plant species produces 75 percent of the world’s food. Farmers in rural Jamaica know that by keeping their farms blended with the forests, the variety of plants protects biodiversity, keeping soils healthy and food production high. The farmers are also committed to saving and exchanging seeds, another way they preserve the diversity of plants. Ina Vandebroek of the New York Botanical Garden, co-author of the National Geographic study, hopes that her work in the area will help build support for farming in Jamaica and make people more aware of how these approaches protect biodiversity. She notes that government support of small farms is required because the deteriorated roads in the region create obstacles for transporting crops to local markets. The government can also help to build community seed banks to help with species preservation, said Vandebroek.