For those living in advanced economies, the most effective solution to biodiversity loss is to reduce consumption of meat and dairy produce. Loss of habitat converted to agriculture, combined with land degradation through intensive farming practices, is the principal contributor to the decline and extinction of species. Livestock farming requires disproportionate areas of land.
Selective purchasing decisions can also deter unsustainable food production. Organic food is one example. Reassurance about sustainable fishing methods can be gained through certification of seafood products, such as that offered by the Marine Stewardship Council.
All governments should seek to extend protected areas and national parks – and strive to enforce the relevant legislation.
Governments of richer countries continue to provide subsidies to their farmers estimated to total $450 billion per annum, supporting production methods which degrade soil and promote monoculture environments. Diverting subsidies towards sustainable land stewardship would achieve greater long term benefits.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity once found in agricultural crops has been lost over the last century. Partly on account of subsidised industrial farming, just three staple crops – wheat, maize and rice – now provide more than half of plant-based calories in the global human diet. Thousands of traditional crops have not only been discarded for food production but have themselves become threatened species.
Importing this model, involving consolidation and modernisation of small farms, brokered by agribusiness corporations, may not therefore be the obvious strategic choice for governments in the world’s poorest countries. But they face dilemmas in protecting biodiversity whilst pursuing their goal of reducing poverty. The FAO estimates that there are 475 million smallholdings of less than two hectares – this is where the world’s most acute poverty is located.
An alternative to the modern farming approach seeks higher yields through intense husbandry on small farms. Described as “agro-ecology” or “eco-farming”, this low input model requires skills in soil regeneration, nitrogen fixation, natural pest control and agro-forestry, each of which depends on greater variety of crops and peripheral plants.
Reconciliation of these polarised approaches to agriculture is critical to both food security and biodiversity.
Scientific reports on sustainable development commissioned by intergovernmental bodies increasingly advocate that the traditional branches of environmental science should be considered together. In particular, climate change has moved up the agenda of concerns for biodiversity.
Detailed implementation of multilateral environmental agreements increasingly overlaps. This difficulty is most apparent in the three separate 1992 UN Conventions addressing the interconnected problems of biodiversity, climate change and desertification. Decision-makers should seek complementary solutions for these areas, as indeed for the entire social and economic programme represented by the sustainable development goals.
Many of the world’s major corporations are beginning to acknowledge not just the reputational risk of unsustainable supply chains but also the more fundamental business risk of ecosystem failure. Commodities such as coffee and cocoa are integral to the global economy, yet dependent on delicate ecosystems. A production method involving freshwater will depend on a reliable supply which in turn requires stable local ecosystems.
Companies should factor these supply considerations into their risk analysis, allocating capital investment accordingly.
A world economy in which ecosystems and biodiversity are recognised as the highest and non-negotiable tier of economic capital, framing policymaking and business strategies, offers a vision of the solution to biodiversity loss.
An innovative path to achieve supremacy of ecosystems has been pioneered in a small number of countries since 2017, including New Zealand, and Bangladesh. This grants legal rights to rivers and other environmental assets of especial cultural significance, as though the ecosystem has human agency. The implications are uncertain but any development affecting these rivers is likely to encounter legal hurdles.
more Biodiversity briefings (updated March 2021)
Importance of Biodiversity
Causes of Biodiversity Loss
Climate Change and Biodiversity
Conservation of Biodiversity
Sustainable Development Goals for Biodiversity
Biodiversity Access and Benefit-Sharing
Source Material and Useful Links