UN: Accelerating Biodiversity Loss a 'Fundamental Threat' to the 'Survival of Humankind'

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Common Dreams

UN: Accelerating Biodiversity Loss a 'Fundamental Threat' to the 'Survival of Humankind'

'We must combat agri-food corporations' phenomenal economic and political power,' says author

by
Andrea Germanos, staff writer

"We are hurtling towards irreversible environmental tipping points that, once passed, would reduce the ability of ecosystems to provide essential goods and services to humankind,” Zakri Abdul Hamid of IPBES warned on Monday. (Photo: Peter Blanchard/cc/flickr)

The accelerating loss of biodiversity poses a "fundamental threat" to the "survival of humankind," warned the head of the United Nations new biodiversity body, as he also sounded the alarm on the declining biodiversity on farms.

Zakri Abdul Hamid, founding chair of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), made the comments at the 7th Trondheim Conference in Norway on Monday.

On the widely noted declining plant and animal biodiversity in the wild, Zakri said “we are hurtling towards irreversible environmental tipping points that, once passed, would reduce the ability of ecosystems to provide essential goods and services to humankind.”

But biodiversity loss is hitting farms also, said Zakri, threatening the world's food supplies, both in terms of livestock as well as crops.

“The good news is the rate of decline is dropping but the latest data classify 22% of domesticated breeds at risk of extinction.”

Zakri cites incentives for more uniform breeds from industrialized countries as a contributing factor in the decline of livestock diversity.

“Those genetics are irreplaceable. Once they’re gone they’re gone,” Jeannette Beranger, research and technical programs manager at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, said

Crops have suffered a loss of 75 percent of genetic diversity in the last century as locally-adapted varieties were abandoned in favor of genetically uniform varieties.

Take apples, says John Torgrimson, executive director of Seed Savers Exchange, an organization that saves and shares heirloom seeds.

Nowadays, you'll generally find only about 10 varieties of apples in markets, he says, and some of those are related to each other. 

And the ubiquitous red delicious of today looks "tremendously different" from the red delicious of 100 years ago, Torgrimson says. 

Yet "at one time, we had 20,000 varieties of apples in the U.S."  In 2000, we had about 4,000 varieties, but most of those were held in private orchards across the country; market forces are bringing only a handful of varieties to consumers, says Torgrimson.

"It's critical that they examine the central role that large-scale industrial agriculture and agri-food corporations have played in eroding our biodiversity and undermining ecosystems."
- Chrisopher Cook
Further, noted Zakri, out of the 30,000 edible plant species only 30 crops account for 95% of human food energy, with the bulk coming from rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum.

We need genetic diversity, Zakri said, because it is key to providing "a large genetic pool that enables organisms to withstand and adapt to new conditions.”

Not to be overlooked in this declining farm biodiversity is the role of agribusiness, says Christopher Cook, journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.

This "high-profile focus on recapturing biodiversity and repairing ecosystems" from the UN body is good, he says, but moving forward, "it's critical that they examine the central role that large-scale industrial agriculture and agri-food corporations have played in eroding our biodiversity and undermining ecosystems."

"In their relentless push for market control these corporations, Monsanto, Syngenta and others, often with help from governments, have monopolized and privatized our seed supply—and promoted monoculture farming that has destroyed soils and fed climate change and drought," says Cook.  "Biodiversity and economic diversity are linked—to restore both, we must combat agri-food corporations' phenomenal economic and political power."

"Another danger is that this process leads to the privatization of biodiversity—another market-based pseudo-solution."
- Tanya Kerssen
The work of bringing various stakeholders together to address the issue of biodiversity loss and genetic erosion is vital," adds Tanya Kerssen, research coordinator with Food First, an organization that works to eliminate the injustices that cause hunger.

And, echoing Cook, she says that "hopefully, the new platform will take seriously the role that industrial 'green revolution' agriculture has played in generating this crisis, which is being perpetuated at a breakneck pace through the corporate rush on land, water and other resources around the world.

If you want to see biodiversity loss in motion, just look at where a land grab has taken place.

"These 'land grabs' are transforming diverse, community-based food systems—which also rely on the diversity of nature, including wild plants, forests, pollinators, etc.—into monocultures dependent on corporate inputs. Conserving biodiversity requires empowering farmers, peasants and indigenous peoples to manage diversity in sustainable ways," says Kerssen.

The answer to this declining biodiversity will not be found in corporate agriculture, which started the problem, she emphasizes.

"The danger is that agribusiness will influence the process, or coopt the results, to assert itself as the solution to the problem it created—for instance, by making Monsanto’s claim that it can 'produce more, conserve more,'" cautions Kerssen.

"Another danger is that this process leads to the privatization of biodiversity—another market-based pseudo-solution—that will only increase speculative pressure by investors on the world’s most precious resources."

"Either way," says Kerssen, "it will be incumbent on social movements around the world to make sure IPBES recommendations are implemented with an eye towards justice and sustainability, not corporate profit."

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