Recipes for preserving biodiversity in agriculture

rethink sustainability

Recipes for preserving biodiversity in agriculture

When large swaths of Ireland depended on the Irish lumper potato, the loss of that food species due to disease led to a four year famine in the middle of the nineteenth century and millions of deaths.

Some 170 years on, the world continues to practice such monoculture - a farming practice that grows just a few crop varieties. If one were to look at food crops alone, only nine plant species make up 66%1 of our global crop production. Monoculture in farming contributes to a decrease in the number of species and reduces biodiversity.

If one were to look at food crops alone, only nine plant species make up 66% of our global crop production

The problem is severe. A lack of biodiversity is one of the top 10 greatest risks facing society2. The 10.9 billion people that it's estimated will live on Earth in 21003 will need to be fed on ever-dwindling resources. The question society has to grapple with: how to do so while still preserving biodiversity and maintaining a circular agricultural production process.

On a shaky footing

The formal definition of biodiversity4 emphasises a variety "of all living organisms at genetic, species and ecosystem level...” In crop production, this means not just a variety of plants (such as tomatoes, onions, okra) but also a variety of types of tomatoes and onions and a variety of ecosystems that can grow different kinds of food.

Unfortunately this diversity is dwindling. The ecosystem — the birds and pollinators that help plant production — are also under threat. Climate change, habitat loss and deforestation, invasive species, and overuse of fertilisers and pollution are exacerbating the problem.

Unfortunately this diversity is dwindling. The ecosystem — the birds and pollinators that help plant production — are also under threat

While biodiversity is important for its intrinsic value, its loss is a problem for a number of reasons.

  • It decreases the food ecosystem's ability to respond to climate change. Climate change is going to need us to constantly reboot what we grow — and how we grow it. Fewer plant species is the equivalent of putting all our eggs in one basket, it leaves us more vulnerable to risk.
  • Many medicines owe their origins to plants. A loss of biodiversity means a loss of opportunities for nature-derived cures.
  • Biodiversity damage could seriously dent the global economic output, thwarting it by at least 18% by 2050.


The push-pull forces at play

The case for preserving biodiversity might be clear but the path to getting there is anything but. For decades now, the argument that we need to throw more resources — fertilisers and pesticides and water — to get more out of the land and feed more people, held sway. The Green Revolution in India5, which launched in 1965, was a shining example of this theory — until it was not. The argument was that yield-enhancing, disease-resistant seeds combined with high doses of fertiliser and pesticides could increase crop output and feed growing populations.

The premise behind the Green Revolution was controversial at best. Addressing hunger is not just a matter of producing enough food. The 820 million hungry people globally also suffer due to a lack of adequate food distribution systems. The Green Revolution also resulted in environmental pollution from too much fertiliser use and to the loss of arable soil.


How we bring back biodiversity in agriculture

Since farming and societal impact are linked closely, it is going to take government policies working with farmers and financial institutions to alleviate some of the pain from a loss of biodiversity.

One of the prescriptions6: agricultural practices that grow crops while healing the soil at the same time. Such practices include traditional techniques such as crop rotation and allowing livestock grazing to control weeds.

Since farming and societal impact are linked closely, it is going to take government policies working with farmers and financial institutions to alleviate some of the pain from a loss of biodiversity

The lessons from the Green Revolution are a potent argument for leaning on a circular approach to agriculture. A circular system emphasises minimal waste, material reduction and increased recycling, reuse and repair. This translates to less use of water, pesticides and fertilisers — and imagines a move away from chasing the law of diminishing returns.

Advanced methods such as precision farming, rooted in circular principles, also lead to more judicious use of water and fertilisers.

Technology once again harbours the potential to reboot the conversation about biodiversity and food production

Companies such as CLAAS provide precision farming by mapping a site and recommending site-specific agricultural practices. As the crop grows, CLAAS gathers related data and recommends adjusting the amount of fertiliser accordingly. The senseFLY unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a farmer's friend by flying over large swaths of fields, recording crop images and other data through sensors, and using that information to optimise fertiliser and water use. For example, a drone from senseFLY helped a team in Russia decrease its use of nitrogen fertiliser by 20%. Essentially drone images and data processing compare the state of the crop against the ideal and software recommends course-corrections in days, before it is too late.

Technology once again harbours the potential to reboot the conversation about biodiversity and food production

These agricultural drones and complementary AI-driven software help achieve the precision farming goals we'll need to sustain biodiversity while getting more yield out of what we have.

The use of technology in agriculture is not without controversy, however. The gene editing technique known as CRISPR, promises to deliver plants that are resistant to blights and illnesses, and even alter the insects that decimate plants. The promise of CRISPR lies in its ability to selectively add or subtract desirable qualities from species. While the positives for such a technology abound, so do the negatives. Government policies will have to evaluate and factor in societal impacts, ethics and the public opinion before we use CRISPR to increase biodiversity and more circular agricultural practices.


An appetite for green?

Global strategies like the seed vault in Svalbard, part of the Crop Trust headquartered in Bonn, Germany, are taking on the task of preserving the seeds and genetic materials of plants, fundamental building blocks of biodiversity.

In addition, we have to consider the wheres and hows of food production. We can't afford to simply take over more land and lay it fallow. Circular agriculture that addresses the hows — decreasing water consumption, optimising fertiliser use — will also get us there. The urgency and scale of the problem requires an all-hands-on approach where all promising technologies and initiatives get a fair chance.

1 http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1180463/icode/
2 https://www.zurich.com/en/knowledge/topics/global-risks/the-global-risks-report-2020?&WT.mc_id=z_cp_b2b_se_GOOGLE_Global_B2B%257CGMP-G-BMM-Global+Risks+Report0720-US-EN_2020_N/A_GRR_IPG_N/A_All-Platforms_Mixed_Text_Search_N/A_Google_Global-Risks-Report_%252Bglobal+%252Brisks+%252Breport+%252B2020&WT.srch=1&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI-tXOnbW26wIVE4nICh0-iwB0EAAYASAAEgIFivD_BwE
3 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/17/worlds-population-is-projected-to-nearly-stop-growing-by-the-end-of-the-century/
4 https://www.cambridgeconservation.org/project/biodiversity-and-natural-capital/#:~:text=Biodiversity%2520%25E2%2580%2593%2520the%2520diversity%2520of%2520all,the%2520flows%2520that%2520benefit%2520society.
5 https://www.britannica.com/event/green-revolution
6 https://www.foodandlandusecoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/FOLU-GrowingBetter-GlobalReport.pdf

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