Humanity’s food security depends on biodiversity and ecosystem services. High-tech agriculture is not the solution, but part of the problem.
The vast majority of countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It was agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and entered into force at the end of 1993, when 60 countries ratified the treaty. The CBD is a recognition of the intrinsic value of biological diversity on earth as well as a recognition of its importance to humanity. The objectives of the Convention are the protection, preservation and restoration of biodiversity, which is defined as âthe variety of life on earth and the natural patterns that it formsâ. This variety includes plants, animals and microorganisms. In addition to diversity between species, genetic diversity within species is important.
The ability of planet Earth to sustain life depends on biodiversity – and not only, because the decline in species and the climate crisis are interdependent (see box on next page). Without control, the erosion of biodiversity will doom mankind to disaster. Hunger would spread further and eradicate it, as envisioned by the United Nations’ first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 1), would become even more difficult.
According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), around 9.9% of the world’s population faced hunger in 2020, while 12% faced severe food insecurity. . Other serious challenges are undernourishment and malnutrition. Nutritional deficiencies are detrimental to a person’s health. The impacts include stunting (low height-for-age), which currently affects around 22% of children under five globally, and wasting (low weight-for-height), which affects nearly 7 %. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity, with more people going hungry in 2020 than in 2019.
In view of these facts, it is important to understand the links between biodiversity and food security. Indeed, agriculture, forestry and fisheries depend on biodiversity in different ways. Decrease in species and erosion of genetic variety within species negatively impact productivity and can make established farming practices unsustainable.
Biodiversity is the basis of ecosystem services, which the CBD defines as âthe benefits that humans derive from ecosystemsâ. The most obvious of these services is the direct provision of food. In developing countries, the diet of many people includes foods grown in nature (such as fruits, vegetables, tubers, fish and hunted animals). Prosperous nations also consume wild food resources. Most of the world’s aquatic food consumption is not based on aquaculture but on the exploitation of natural resources.
However, not only the wild growth of food depends on ecosystem services. The culture of cultures does it too. Relevant issues include pollination, soil health and resilience to shocks. In addition, ecosystems have an impact on microclimates, water supply and air quality.
Bees are the most important pollinators. Evidence shows that bee pollination improves as more insect populations are also abundant. According to recent studies, the global decline in populations of bees and other insects is negatively affecting crop yields. In fact, various other insects are pollinators as well, as are some bats and birds.
Studies prepared for the UN conclude that populations of terrestrial insects have declined by an average of one to two percent per year over the past 40 years. At the same time, crop yields were 13% lower for animal dependent crops than for others. According to a United Nations Food Systems Summit publication, 75% of crop types, including fruits, vegetables and various cash crops, are pollinated by animals.
Biodiversity in soils improves the productivity of a field. Healthy soils promote higher yields. Soil quality depends on microorganisms, insects, and small animals, which all help break down matter into essential nutrients, but also help retain soil nutrients. Microorganisms play a key role in the cycles of nitrogen and other nutrients. Bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen and break down proteins in dead organic matter, with compounds that stimulate plant growth. Earthworms in soils have an impact on physical properties. Various organisms are in symbiotic relationships with each other.
In addition, the resilience of agriculture to shocks depends on the biodiversity of its plants and animals. The greater the diversity, the less damage extreme weather conditions or new diseases are likely to cause.
If the food supply of the population depends on a single variety of crops, disaster can strike quickly. This happened in Ireland when potato late blight disease caused famine in the 1840s. In addition, genetic diversity within crop species helps farming systems withstand the stress of drought, heat or excessive rain. Accordingly, FAO commends farmers in Ethiopia and the Sahel region for the systematic cultivation of several different varieties. This approach helps prevent devastating crop failures as shocks do not affect all cultivars in the same way. Indeed, environmentalists have argued for decades that traditional land races are very important in this context (see interview with Melaku Worede in D + C / E + Z 2012/03, p. 102).
It is sometimes claimed that high-tech agriculture with hybrid seeds, innovative pesticides and heavy use of fertilizers is what will save humanity. It is a mistake. Monocultures are particularly vulnerable, pesticides are toxic and fertilizers are the result of energy-intensive production processes. Food production systems of this type are in fact major drivers of biodiversity loss, reducing gene pools that facilitate the selection of varieties resistant to various types of shocks.
Scientists are sounding the alarm
Scientists’ understanding of the relationship between agricultural productivity and biodiversity continues to improve. The trends they detect are worrying. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimated in 2019 that around one million animal and plant species were threatened with extinction. So-called âmodernâ farming practices are part of the problem. IPBES is based in Bonn and is the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Both bodies regularly publish reports. FAO has also published various reports related to biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Humanity has systematically failed for too long to fully grasp the economic relevance of ecosystem services. Since they are unpaid, economists’ models have generally taken them for granted. This must change, as has been convincingly said in a flagship report which has been prepared on behalf of the UK government. Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge was the lead author (see Katja Dombrowski in the magazine section of D + C / E + Z e-Paper 2021/04).
Food researchers emphasize the need for efforts at local, national and global levels to protect and preserve biodiversity in all its forms. Our common future depends on swift and determined action to stem the dangerous erosion of biodiversity.
Sundus Saleemi is a senior researcher at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn. She recently worked with the independent scientific group that supported the United Nations Food Systems Summit in September 2021.