Humans appear to be caught in a catch 22. Loss of biodiversity ― mainly driven by agricultural expansion ― threatens global food supplies, however, the growing demand for food to feed an ever-increasing number of mouths requires newly cultivated lands.
Agriculture is now known to be one of the main factors associated with biodiversity loss (2). In particular, land-use changes and unsustainable management practices, including over-exploitation of soil and over-reliance on pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. New technologies have the potential to reduce the use of environmentally damaging chemicals in the agricultural industry and make land use more efficient. But is this enough to counteract the environmental damage?
The European team of researchers led by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) used global biophysical and economic models to examine the role of population growth and economic development on the global loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services ― the benefits that ecosystems provide for humans such as carbon sequestration (the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the air), nutrient cycling, and pollination.
According to the authors, the impacts of agriculture and forestry increased between 2000 and 2011. In particular, the results suggest a 3–7 per cent increase in the number of bird species at risk of extinction owing to land use changes and a 6 per cent reduction in carbon sequestration. Overall, cattle farming is the major driver of biodiversity loss, but oilseed production showed the largest increases in biodiversity impacts. Moreover, forestry activities exerted the highest impact on carbon sequestration.
The tropics are being hit hardest in terms of biodiversity loss, including Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific region. Whereas the effects on carbon sequestration are seen worldwide ― agricultural and forestry land use in Europe and North America are responsible for 25 per cent of the decline.
Recent reports have also highlighted the devastating effects of agriculture and land-use changes on insect numbers―essential to many ecosystems. Moreover, the increasing global dominance of monoculture ― cultivating a single crop within a given area ― and a shift towards a few high-value crops are more bad news for agriculture.
Current agricultural practices are clearly not sustainable. Therefore, strategies should be implemented to promote crop diversification, reduce chemical use, and conserve water and other precious resources. New technologies should be used to improve crop productivity by using ― without causing a knock-on effect on other ecosystems. Precision agriculture and so-called precision conservation efforts are leading the way towards more sustainable approaches but perhaps, not quickly enough.
The new findings suggest that while land use has become more efficient, total environmental damage has increased. Technological advances are unable to keep up the population growth and increasing affluence around the world. Emerging economies could soon surpass developed countries in driving biodiversity loss, which must be taken into account as part of an international conservation effort.
According to the authors, slowing down population growth is essential to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals and would benefit both society and nature. Furthermore, to address the “biodiversity crisis,” governments should take “an equitable approach recognizing remote responsibility, and promote a shift of economic development towards activities with low biodiversity impacts,” the authors write. Big corporations dominating the agricultural sector will also need to take responsibility and be more active in the fight to decrease biodiversity and ecosystem losses due to agriculture.