UN Report On Biodiversity Loss is A Wakeup Call
by Howard Minigh
Biodiversity is declining globally at rates “unprecedented in human history” and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with “grave impacts on people around the world now likely”, according to a new report from United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
The IPBES report warns that up to one million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. There can be no doubt now that biodiversity loss is a critical global issue, on a par with climate change, that must be tackled with urgency.
The report authors identify nearly all aspects of human activity as impacting on biodiversity, ranking the top five factors as changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species. They say land-use change is primarily driven by agriculture, urbanization and forestry. Let’s tackle agriculture’s role.
It is only through agriculture that food is available on our tables – farmers are essential to life on earth for today’s 7.7 billion people. But agriculture also has a large impact on ecosystems and biodiversity, with 33 per cent of the world’s land surface devoted to crop or livestock production. How we manage farming and food systems is pivotal to the future of biodiversity.
Our food systems must also provide food and nutrition security for 2 billion extra people by 2050, ensure the sustainable use of all natural resources (while mitigating climate change), and provide a livelihood for 500 million farmers and others along the food supply chain.
The solution is not easy. For example, dealing with one challenge (e.g., increasing productivity) can have impact on another (e.g., biodiversity). We need a system-wide approach to avoid and minimize trade-offs – encouraging innovation and technology that help us increase productivity and maintain biodiversity.
To be productive, farmers need a broad toolbox to protect their crops. A recent study published in Nature looked at the global burden of pathogens and pests on wheat, rice, maize, potato and soybean – which make up a large proportion of global calorie intake. It found global crop loss estimates per crop to be 21.5, 30.0, 22.6, 17.2 and 21.4 per cent respectively.
The crop protection and biotech industry is innovating to reduce these crop losses, while also minimizing impact on the environment. Compared with 50 years ago, for example, farmers need apply 95 per cent less pesticide to achieve the same level of control with today’s products. In addition, crop protection products introduced today are safer, more targeted and have less impact on the environment as manufacturers screen out problematic active ingredients early in the R&D process. We need to give farmers access to modern farm inputs and improved technology to allow precise and targeted applications.
It is this focus on innovation in crop protection, biotechnology and other inputs that has helped yields across all crops increase from just under 4 t/ha in 1960 to over 6 t/ha today – an increase of around 60 per cent. This has helped to increase production to meet demand from a growing population without a significant increase in arable land cultivation. This sustainable intensification also has a positive knock-on impact on biodiversity.
According to biologist Edward O. Wilson of Harvard, in order to truly preserve global biodiversity, about half of the planet’s surface must be set aside for nature. Cutting food loss, waste and over-consumption of foods is one important element, alongside increasing production per unit of area.
The UN report on biodiversity is a wakeup call for all of us. It is now incumbent on all stakeholders – including policymakers, industry and civil society – to work together, constructively, to ensure we meet the needs of the today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Howard Minigh is CEO of CropLife International.