Biodiversity: Farming Will Make or Break the Food Chain

BROOKLIN, Canada - As the world population swells to nine billion by 2050, global biodiversity will be under extreme pressure unless new ways to grow food are developed, experts say.

An additional one billion hectares of wild lands -- mainly forests and savanna -- will be converted to food production fields by 2050. While this may provide enough food, it is likely to result in a massive decline in biodiversity, undermining ecosystems that provide vital services such as clean water and air, and capture carbon to slow the build-up of climate-altering gases in the atmosphere.

Sixty percent of the Earth's ecosystems are in trouble right now, warned the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report last year.

What state will they be in by 2050?

It depends how society decides to feed itself, says Louise Jackson of the University of California at Davis, and head of an agro-biodiversity task force at Diversitas, an international scientific organisation devoted to biodiversity research based in Paris, France.

"If all agricultural lands adopt the industrial, monocultural model, there will be enormous impacts on water and other essential services provided by diverse ecosystems," Jackson told IPS.

Societies need to recognise the value of ecosystem services and encourage farmers to use methods that benefit biodiversity, she says.

Biodiversity refers to the amazing variety of living things that make up the biosphere, the thin skin of life that covers the Earth and is, as far as we know, unique in the universe. The trees, plants, insects, bacteria, birds and animals that make up forest ecosystems produce oxygen, clean water, prevent erosion and flooding, and capture excess carbon dioxide, among other things.

"There is an unbreakable link between human health and well being and ecosystems," Walter Reid, director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) and a professor with the Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, told IPS last year.

The MA is a 22-million-dollar, four-year global research initiative commissioned by the United Nations, and carried out by 1,360 experts from 95 countries. Its mission has been to examine ways to slow or reverse the degradation of the Earth's ecosystems, including a look at what the future may be like in 2050.

The more species and diversity there are in an ecosystem, the more robust it is. Remove some species and it will continue to function. However, like a complex house of cards, removing key cards or too many cards results in a collapse.

For many ecosystems such as oceans, scientists do not know what the key cards are or how many lost species is too many.

Agriculture has been the biggest contributor to species loss in the past, but Jackson and others believe that valuing agricultural lands as both sources of food and biodiversity could slow the loss of future species.

"There are ways to enhance biodiversity even here in California where there are very intensive agricultural monocultures," Jackson said.

Crop rotation, re-vegetating farm edges and integrating thin strips of land into farm fields to provide habitat for insect predators boosts biodiversity while reducing pesticide use and the impacts of chemicals on water and soil, she said.

The benefits to farmers include less spending on pesticides and fertilisers and improved soil quality due to enhanced microbial biodiversity.

However, such benefits often take years to emerge and pose short-term-financial risks for farmers. To offset these, society should support farmers with some form of payment for increasing biodiversity since everyone benefits from ecosystem services. At the same time, there ought to be strong penalties for chemical pollution, she says.

Conversion of the one billion hectares of wild lands into farmland can also be done in ways that preserve some biodiversity by leaving corridors of connected habitat so species can move from one place to another. Research in the Amazon has shown that islands of untouched forest surrounded by agricultural lands quickly begin to fray at the edges and slowly shrink.

"We can do better in terms of preserving biodiversity in converting forest into farmlands," said Truman Young, an ecologist who is also at University of California, Davis.

"The problem in feeding the world is poverty not food production," Young said in an interview.

While agreeing that more land will be needed in the future, the biggest current and future threats to biodiversity are food and timber export markets, and biofuels, he says.

"Brazil's rural population is in decline even as more Amazonian rainforest is being cleared and turned into soy fields," Young said.

Although some poor farmers are still trying to farm the Amazon, the main pressure today is large industrial farm operations that grow soy for export to Europe. The soy and timber barons of the Amazon have tremendous influence and power, making it difficult to slow deforestation of the region, he said.

The international community needs to counteract that by applying pressure on Brazil because the carbon that is being released by deforestation affects everyone on the planet, he argued.

The other major threat to biodiversity is the thirst for biofuels, derived from corn and sugar cane, among other things, and which experts say have already caused deforestation in Asia and parts of South America.

"Brazil, because of its size and climate, could become the biofuel capital of the world," Young said.

And that could devastate the country's biodiversity without adding much to the world's energy supply. Europeans are turning away from biodiesel made from palm oil because it is causing deforestation. Biofuels only offer a benefit when agricultural waste products are used for conversion into fuel. The technology for doing that is not yet here, he said.

"Improving fuel efficiency is the fastest and easiest way to reduce use of fossil fuels," Young noted.

Just as boosting ethanol or biodiesel production fails to solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, so does investing billions of dollars in research into genetically engineered crops, says Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, a U.S. think tank.

"We already know how to grow enough food to feed the world. The problem is the food distribution system," Mittal told IPS.

That system favours large-scale monocultures of a few specialised crops, and is destroying biodiversity. Ultimately that approach is a recipe for global famine, she said.

"We know how to end hunger and preserve biodiversity, but there are powerful corporate interests in opposition," Mittal said.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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