Large-scale agriculture threatens biodiversity: what alternatives are there?

Modern agricultural systems have achieved staggering increases in productivity over the past 50 years, but these come at a huge cost to nature. Agriculture is responsible for around 25% of the emissions affecting the planet’s climate. And it is also one of the main causes of biodiversity loss, responsible for the extinction of 80% of species on Earth, according to United Nations data.

Humanity depends on the diversity of plants and animals in the oceans, soils and skies for the planet to continue to be habitable, including purity of water and air, for pollination to be possible and for the proper functioning of the ecosystem, as well as obtaining substances to produce medicines.

At the same time, we need to produce enough food for 8 billion people. But fortunately, there are solutions to make the food system more natural and climate-friendly. “Every agricultural system will need to streamline the processes of nature and biodiversity in some way. But some are more biodiversity-friendly than others,” Stephen Wood, an agricultural and food systems expert at the Nature Conservancy, told DW and Yale. School of Development.

Less land for agriculture and more for nature

Habitat elimination is a major form of diversity loss, driven by agriculture. “It’s happening all over the world at a pretty alarming rate,” Wood said.

It is estimated that agriculture and livestock occupy about 50% of the world’s habitable land. While habitats like the Amazon, where the cattle industry is clearing rainforest, often dominate the headlines, important native grasslands in countries like the United States are also being plowed for crops like wheat.

Intensive agriculture has the greatest impact on species loss, because it requires a lot of land, not only to raise livestock, but also to grow animal feed.

Traditional and more wildlife-friendly methods, such as grazing livestock over long distances from summer and winter pastures, can benefit biodiversity. Grazing animals in these cases helps control invasive pests and maintain important grassland habitat for ground-nesting birds, for example, according to Wood.

On the consumer side, one of the best ways to reduce the damage caused by livestock is to eat less meat, according to WWF. Land use for agriculture would decrease by 13% if people simply reduced their consumption of meat and dairy products to the recommended dietary allowance.

Monocultures, a desert without biodiversity

Since the 1940s, giant monocultures have dominated agriculture, largely replacing small farms growing different crops. “The effects of this on biodiversity have been devastating,” says Barbara Gemmill-Herren, an ecologist and pollination expert in an interview with DW, “with large-scale monocultures, after a while, the soil becomes a kind of desert without biodiversity”. the senior research associate at the World Agroforestry Center, an international institute in Nairobi. A field with organic crops.

Planting other types of plants in large crops helps maintain soil and ecosystem biodiversity.

Planting other types of plants in large crops helps maintain soil and ecosystem biodiversity.

Bees and other pollinators, which are a key indicator of wider biodiversity, find it difficult to service such large monoculture areas. These monoculture farms lack other plant and animal species that fight the spread of diseases and pests. This, in turn, intensifies the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers which can pollute rivers and streams and damage the soil, as well as the insects and worms that birds feed on. “Intensive agriculture of any kind is just hostile to the insects that really need to thrive, and everything else depends on the insects,” said Gemmill-Herren. While monocultures appear to be extraordinarily efficient at producing calories, this simple calculation hides their true cost, according to the specialist.

Gemmill-Herren says the global food system should take into account ecological and social as well as financial costs. This would result in more wildlife-friendly agricultural approaches, such as growing trees and shrubs between crops in fields, planting cover crops and mixed cropping.

But others question the effectiveness of this approach, saying that making all farms places that respect biodiversity and nature could end up requiring much more land to produce enough food.

Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers

Gemmill-Herren points out that pesticides are a heavy weapon for the environment, used excessively and incorrectly, since applied to seeds, as many companies do, they are distributed via pollen. “The best practice when it comes to pesticides is to use them only when absolutely necessary,” she says.

Overuse of fertilizers is also harming biodiversity. Leaks in water systems lead to excess nutrient content that causes algae to grow, which then blocks sunlight and sucks oxygen out of the water as it decomposes, killing marine life. A classic example of this in the United States is the Mississippi Delta, where a dead zone larger than Montenegro threatens one of the country’s most important fishing grounds. In Nepal’s Chitwan Valley, chemical companies and even some educators are encouraging farmers to use more pesticides than necessary, creating a vicious cycle.

To do?

Biodiversity advocates should consider ways to help farmers manage their land in ways that protect nature, Wood says. This applies to both private benefits they could get from improved biodiversity, such as increased soil fertility, pollination and pest control, and public benefits. ‘For many biodiversity challenges, it is quite clear what the solutions are,’ concluded the expert.

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