Why you should care about the biodiversity crisis

Dougie Spencer

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5 minutes

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Knowledge

If you have been paying attention, you will have heard of the biodiversity crisis, but why is biodiversity in a crisis and why is that important?

July 1, 2022
Image: 
Nandkumar Patel

Finding the garden of Eden

Biodiversity is a broad term that refers to the genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity of life. Biodiversity hotspots exist across multiple spatial scales from the microbiome of your stomach to the meso- and macro-fauna (microscopic creatures and insects) in the soil of your garden to the tropical forests of the Congo Basin. Everywhere you look on Earth, biodiversity is there, so long as you are looking on the right scale.

Image source: Carboxaldehyde

We are more dependent on nature than we know

As a species and a society, we benefit greatly from biodiversity in activities such as foraging and logging to more indirect benefits, such as insect pollination of our crops and disease regulation. These benefits can be defined as supporting (nutrient cycling), regulating (climate regulation), provisioning (medicinal resources), and cultural services (recreational experiences) and some appear more at the core of the economy than others. Let's take a further look into how biodiversity or a lack thereof can affect our society.

Ecosystem services. Image source: PBL, WUR, CICES 2014

Monoculture forests are vulnerable to disease

Let’s start with wood as a provisioning service. The logging sector is a global industry that spreads its value chain across the economies of multiple continents.

Without the pest and disease regulating ability of biodiversity, populations of trees are vulnerable to devastation, as occurred in the Welzow forest of Germany where the tiny bark beetle ravaged the forest. The tiny bark beetle holds a particular fondness for burrowing in pine trees, of which the Welzow forest was planted exclusively with as a monoculture. The estimated cost of reforestation by the German agriculture minister was €880 million. Should the forest have been planted with other species of trees or other species were given the space to grow, then the beetle would not have been able to spread so easily and ravage the forest.

Rhein-Erft-Kreis District landslide. Image source: The New York Times

Nature-based solutions prevent sinking settlements

Flash-flooding can devastate communities, and if you’ve been following the news over the last year, you will be familiar with the tragic flooding in July 2021 that affected nearly all of Europe leading to ~€2-10 million lost to flooding damage. Eastern Australia has also been a recent victim of flash-flooding this spring, which has left many without a home, cost ~$936 million in property damage and heavily disrupted the food supply chain. Flood protection infrastructure is extremely expensive and resource intense, but in the face of climate change and ever frequent extreme weather events, it will become a necessity.

There are, however, alternative solutions to concrete flood protection infrastructure, namely, nature-based solutions. Terrestrial forests provide flood protection against heavy precipitation. Forests establish and maintain essential hydrological flows throughout landscapes and retain 50-70% surface run-off, compared to built-up areas and arable lands which retain 0-10% and 10-30% surface run-off, respectively. That means that during period of heavy downfall, downstream riparian settlements experience drastically different volumes of water when the upstream land is forested compared to when it is arable or built-up. Leaving land for forests to grow can lead to trade-offs with agricultural productivity in the short-term, but long-term benefits can negotiate these trade-offs.

Bee pollinating lavender. Image source Brett Sales

Busy bees pollinate our crops

Agricultural production is heavily dependent on wild-insect pollinators such as bees, butterflies, hoverflies, and moths. Currently, 80% of crop and wild-flowering plants in Europe depend upon wild-insect pollination. In the last half decade, our dependency has increased by 300%, however many of these species are at the threshold of extinction. Intensive farming practices, mono-cropping, overuse of agricultural chemicals, and rising climate change-induced temperatures have been associated with downfall in bee populations. Should the diversity of these pollinators decline, or worse, we lose these creatures, the pollination services that they provide would have to be replaced otherwise our economy would suffer a devastating shock and increased food insecurity could spread across Europe.

Even if we were able to replace the services of wild-insect pollinators, this is certainly not something we should like to do for a prosperous economy. In the UK wild-insect pollination of crops has been calculated to value £440 (€510) million a year.

Unfortunately, Chinese apple farmers have already suffered the consequences of an extinct bee population. Through excessive pesticide use and by leaving no space for bushy or wildly vegetated habitats where the bees can hive, the apple farmers are now left to use paint brushes to pollinate their crop. The workforce required for this may be feasible, though costly, for apple farming, but this business model has no scalability for the vegetable crops that feed the world and enrich our diets.

Human activity is pushing nature’s limits

As Johan Rockström et al. have declared in 2009, we have transgressed Earth’s boundary of the rate biodiversity loss with two most notable concerns being the loss of top predators and structurally important species such as coral and kelp. We simply cannot afford to keep on actively destroying our natural world and with it, biodiversity. It goes without saying that once a species becomes extinct, there is no going back, and the ecosystem which it once occupied will no longer be able to function properly. Once a top predator is extinct, a process known as trophic cascade occurs, meaning that all trophic levels become imbalanced and eventually even the soil becomes eroded. The loss of structurally important species such as kelp can alsodevastate an ecosystem, due to its multifaceted roles within the ecosystem, such as food provision and nursery habitats.

The examples addressed here are but a few in the grand scheme of nature’s contribution to people, but as you may already understand, our economy and society depend heavily on the health of the natural world. Unfortunately, we are not yet working in harmony with nature and have for a long time been destroying it in the name of economic prosperity. It’s about time we changed that, don’t you think?

The road back to Eden

The fight to save biodiversity will take place on many fronts and over the short-, mid-, and long-term and the solutions will require involvement from the global to local level community. There is no silver bullet and economic, social, and even environmental trade-offs will be inevitable. However, movements such as rewilding, regenerative agriculture, and greening cities certainly seem to be a step in the right direction.

In our next article we will look at how we can reduce biodiversity loss and bring back nature into society.

Image source: Joe Kent

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