08.05.2019 |

Sustainable agriculture needed to stop biodiversity loss, UN report

Monocultures have negative impacts on biodiversity, says the report (Photo: CC0)

Nature is declining globally at unprecedented rates due to human activities, a major new UN report has warned. Up to one million plant and animal species are currently facing extinction – and the rate of extinctions is accelerating, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The report, the summary of which was approved by representatives from 130 countries at a plenary meeting in Paris last week, finds that agricultural activities are the main driver of biodiversity loss. “The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The report was compiled over the past three years by 145 experts from 50 countries, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors. It assesses changes over the past five decades and is based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources. “The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast,” warns Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), one of the three co-chairs of the assessment. The report finds that around 1 million of the estimated 8 million animal and plant species on Earth are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. The authors write that more than 40% of amphibian species and more than 33% of all marine mammals are threatened. “Nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life. Most of nature’s contributions to people are not fully replaceable, and some are irreplaceable,” they warn. For example, more than 75% of global food crop types, including fruits and vegetables and important cash crops such as coffee, cocoa and almonds, rely on animal pollination. The global proportion of insect species threatened with extinction is not known, but estimates suggest at least 10% are threatened.

“This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world,” said co-chair Prof. Josef Settele (Germany). “The direct drivers of change in nature with the largest global impact have been (starting with those with most impact): changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species,” says the report. “Land-use change is driven primarily by agriculture, forestry and urbanization, all of which are associated with air, water and soil pollution.” The report notes that, since 1970, the value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300%. More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. Although the pace of agricultural expansion into intact ecosystems has varied from country to country, losses have occurred primarily in the tropics, home to the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet. For example, from 1980 to 2000, 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost due to agricultural expansion, mainly due to cattle ranching in Latin America (42 million hectares) and plantations in Southeast Asia (7.5 million hectares), 80% of which were used for oil palms.

The authors highlight that agriculture is not only a culprit, but also a victim of biodiversity loss. Between $235 billion and $577 billion in annual global crop output is at risk as a result of pollinator loss. In addition, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are disappearing worldwide. “This loss of diversity, including genetic diversity, poses a serious risk to global food security by undermining the resilience of many agricultural systems to threats such as pests, pathogens and climate change,” they warn. Fewer and fewer varieties and breeds of plants and animals are being cultivated, raised, traded and maintained around the world, despite many efforts, including those by indigenous peoples and local communities. By 2016, 559 of the 6,190 domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture (over 9%) had become extinct and at least 1,000 more are threatened, according to IPBES.

The report concludes that global biodiversity and sustainability goals can only be achieved through “urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change”. “It is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” said Watson. The report presents a list of possible actions for achieving transformative change in different sectors. In agriculture, it recommends “promoting sustainable agricultural practices, such as good agricultural and agroecological practices”. The authors stress that “options for sustainable agricultural production are available and developing further.” These options include integrated pest and nutrient management, organic agriculture, agroecological practices, soil and water conservation practices, conservation agriculture, agroforestry, silvopastoral systems, irrigation management, small or patch systems, and practices to improve animal welfare. These practices could be enhanced through well-structured regulations, incentives and subsidies, the removal of distorting subsidies, and by integrated landscape planning and watershed management. “We need to redirect government subsidies towards more sustainable and regenerative farming. This will not only contribute towards absorbing carbon and reducing the emissions of other greenhouse gases, it can also halt a frightening trajectory where farmland is so overloaded that eventually it just stops growing crops,” Watson wrote in The Guardian. (ab)

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