Biodiversity: Why is it so important, why are we losing it, and could shaping a kinder and more sustainable food system be key to protecting it?
Biodiversity is the term coined in 1985 to describe all the variety of life on Earth, in all its shapes and sizes. From the microscopic level and the differences in our genes to individual species, and groups of species, all the way up to entire ecosystems.
Biodiversity is the reason David Attenborough can make series after series and we never get bored.
David Attenborough: “The number and variety of animals and plants is astonishing. Estimates of the number of different species vary from 6 million to 100 million…”
Biodiversity isn’t just something we experience when we watch it on television. The air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink all rely on biodiversity. Or, as this expert put it:
“The other organisms of the planet are our life support systems. You don’t have to worry about them if you don’t care about eating, if you don’t care about breathing, if you don’t care about having fresh water and so on. Then you can just forget about it and die.”
It sounds a bit dramatic, but he’s right. Without plants there would be no oxygen, without bees to pollinate there would be no fruit or nuts, coral reefs protect our coasts from cyclones and tsunamis, trees absorb pollution in urban areas. The millions of species on earth each contribute in their own way to the stability and sustainability of our planet.
All species, that is, except one.
Since the industrial revolution, humans have been responsible for an extraordinary loss of biodiversity. The extinction of 83% of all land mammals, 80% of marine mammals, and 50% of all plants. since 1970 human activities have significantly altered 75% of the ice free land surface. This destruction of ecosystems has contributed greatly to climate change and led to a million species being threatened with extinction.
There are the obvious examples like the Tasmanian tiger and the dodo, who have both disappeared due to human activity. But there are also less obvious ones.
Bees, for example, play a crucial role in pollinating plants. Including the crops that grow our food. Alarmingly their numbers have been steadily declining globally. If we were to lose all bees, we would see entire biological systems collapse, including the ones that provide us with our food.
This has a lot of people worried, including this guy…
David Attenborough: “We are facing a crisis, and one that has consequences for us all. it’s never been more important for us to understand the effects of biodiversity loss, and of how it is that we ourselves are responsible for it.”
In recent decades, the largest driver of biodiversity loss on land has been land clearing or deforestation. The conversion of pristine natural habitats into industrial agricultural systems. In other words the species we destroy are being replaced by ones we eat.
Of all the mammals left on Earth, only 4% are wild mammals, 36% are humans and 60% are livestock.
And It’s a similar story for birds, only 30% of all birds on earth are wild, 70% are chickens and other poultry. In fact, there are 3 poultry birds for every person on the planet.
All these animals require huge amounts of manufactured feed and the more animals we raise, the more feed we need to produce.
Most of this feed comes from crops called monocultures, which are vast plantations where only a single type of plant is grown. It’s usually soy or maize and growing these expansive feed crops requires land. They are already grown in a large number of Earth’s most valuable and vulnerable areas, such as the Amazon rainforest and the Congo Basin.
Growing demand for animal products and the associated intensification and expansion of industrial agriculture threatens the biodiversity of these areas and the resource and water security of their inhabitants, both human and animal alike.
A recent report by WWF found that 60% of global biodiversity loss could be attributed to the food we eat. And the biggest culprit is intensive industrial farming. The poultry industry is the biggest consumer of feed crops. The second biggest is the pig industry. Beef production and aquaculture have also shifted to industrial-scale systems that are now consuming huge amounts of feed crops and other resources.
In fact, beef production was linked to 94% of all land clearing in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef catchment areas.
Since animal agriculture is a major cause of biodiversity loss and climate change, rethinking the way we eat as a society and consuming alternatives to meat and dairy products is one of the biggest ways to reduce our impact on these precious ecosystems.
David Attenborough: “Because we simply can’t destroy the natural forests and plains of the world in order to feed ourselves … We can’t afford to do that, so therefore we need to modify our diet.”
Research published in the journal Science states that if we eliminated meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by 76% – an area equivalent to the US, China, Europe, and Australia combined.
This land could then be regenerated to restore the former ecosystem. There are examples where regenerating natural habitats has seen the return of wildlife that was previously believed to have been permanently lost.
Transitioning away from destructive farming practices is essential if we are to preserve biodiversity and mitigate climate change. While industrial agriculture has succeeded in producing large quantities of food, it has failed to feed the world equally and sustainably, and as the FAO stated “resource intensive agricultural systems have contributed to deforestation, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.”
So what’s the alternative?
Agroecology is the emerging term being used to describe a broad range of alternatives to homogenous industrial agriculture, which all encourage sustainable practices, incorporate traditional knowledge and centre social values.
It supports local, community-based farms that produce a variety of different foods. Rather than destroying ecosystems to make way for farms, food is grown alongside the existing natural world, preserving biodiversity.
A better way is possible, but we need to transform the way we farm and eat, address the climate crisis, and see ourselves as part of the natural world rather than fighting against it. Only then can we save our planet, and the millions of species that call it home… including ourselves.