Biodiversity Loss, Agriculture and Climate Change

Although policies and politicians will often attempt to tackle issues like climate change and biodiversity separately, the two problems are deeply intertwined. Climate change and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same crisis and it would be impossible to address one without the other. Agriculture has not traditionally been a champion of biodiversity and has instead been a source of biodiversity loss. However, biodiversity is extremely important, both to agriculture and to humans in general. So is there a balance we can strike between the natural world and agriculture that can allow biodiversity to flourish without getting in the way of our food production?

Why Does Biodiversity Matter?

Source: Soto-Navarro et al., 2021

Setting aside any moral arguments about the intrinsic worth of other living organisms and their right to life and safety, biodiversity has countless benefits and is unmeasurably valuable to humanity. The loss of biodiversity is considered as big of a threat to human survival as climate change due to the many services biodiversity provides to humanity, including

  • Provisioning Services: Also defined as material outputs or energy, for much of human history, communities have and still rely on the natural world as a source of food, fuel, medicine, building materials and drinking water. In Canada, we have many off-grid communities that rely heavily on the natural world for their survival. 
  • Regulating Services: Ecosystems are essential for providing a temperate and livable environment for humans through regulatory services. Biodiversity is responsible for cleaning the air, sequestering carbon and regulating water flow to reduce the chances of flooding. The natural world also provides a buffer in extreme weather events and keeps ecological players in check to prevent widespread pests or disease. It also protects topsoil from erosion and water from pollution. 
  • Support Services: Biodiversity provides a habitat for beneficial plants and animals and supports them while they provide other services to the ecosystem such as in the case of pollinators. It also is the home to genetic diversity, which provides humans with a gene pool to draw livestock, crops and medicine from.  
  • Cultural Services: Beyond its basic utility, the natural world provides us with a sense of place and belonging. It is beneficial to our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. It provides recreational opportunities and creative inspiration in the arts and in the sciences alike. It can be a source of tourism, rejuvenating local economies and adding to the quality of life for travellers and locals. The natural world is a common element of many world religions and is deeply tied to the identity, customary practices, and traditional ways of knowing of many cultures. 

Despite the many benefits the natural world provides us with, for many species and many ecosystems, things are quite dire.

A lack of biodiversity is harmful to everyone, from humans to soil microbes, everything needs many other things to survive. Everything lives in a delicate biological network and if too many gaps appear in that network, it can lead to widespread damage to the ecosystem. Unlike other disasters like floods or fires, biodiversity loss is a silent killer, its presence is marked by eerie silence and nothingness. It is easily unnoticed until it is too late.

Why Does Soil Biodiversity Matter?

Biodiversity might inspire images of tropical jungles or coral reefs where every type of colourful and curious creature may live but the most biodiverse habitat on earth is right under our feet —in the soil. A single handful of healthy soil contains more living organisms than the number of humans that have ever lived, it may contain billions of bacterial cells, protozoa, fungi, algae, nematodes, annelids, insects, molluscs, reptiles, and mammals.   

Our natural world is extremely reliant on the soil, with more than 40 percent of living organisms in terrestrial ecosystems being directly associated with the soil during their life cycles. 

We are only starting to fully appreciate these vital services (only 1 percent of soil microorganism species have been identified), but from what we do know, it is clear soil ecosystems serves a vital function to our natural world, including:

  • Cycling Nutrients: Healthy soil is responsible for storing nutrients that plants need to survive, including carbon and nitrogen but also rarer nutrients like potassium and magnesium. These nutrient stores are important both for plant growth and mitigating climate change.
  • Waste Decomposition: Living matter in the soil will decompose matter like plant debris and dead animals into humus, which improves the soil. 
  • Provides Structure to Prevent Erosion and Improve Water Retention: Certain fungi produce a sticky protein that helps bind the soil together to help prevent erosion. Meanwhile ants, earthworms and other burrowing animals dig tunnels to help aerate the soil and improve water filtration. 
  • Cleaning Pollutants: Soil organisms have the remarkable ability to clean up certain types of pollution and dilute their impact. One famous example of this skill was the clean-up of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska in 1989. As part of efforts to clean crude oil from 2,000 km of coastline, a mix of nutrients and fertilizers were applied to the sand and sediment to encourage bacterial growth. The bacterial activity resulted in a five-fold increase in the rate of oil degradation.
  • Keeping Pests At Bay: Pest outbreaks are a result of an ecological imbalance, so when there is rich soil diversity, pests are contained and mitigated.  
  • The Potential Source of Useful Scientific Discoveries:  Of the many million microorganisms that live in the soil, many haven’t been categorized and as such, have a lot to offer in the way of scientific research. For instance, penicillin was developed in 1928 using a soil fungus. 

A study in 2017 estimated that the soil provides $1.5 trillion dollars worth of goods and services to the world per year. “Biodiversity is critical for safeguarding global food security, underpinning healthy and nutritious diets, improving rural livelihoods, and enhancing the resilience of people and communities. We need to use biodiversity in a sustainable way, so that we can better respond to rising climate change challenges and produce food in a way that doesn’t harm our environment,” said FAO’s Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

Climate Change And Biodiversity Loss

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), confirmed that nature and climate are inextricably linked and the report reveals that biodiversity loss and climate change are both driven by human activities and they mutually reinforce each other.

Climate Change Harms Biodiversity

The same way that disasters induced by climate change threaten human life, it also affects animals and plant life. An excellent example of this is the Australian wildfires of early 2020, an event that has been linked to climate change. An estimated 3 billion animals were harmed or killed and the old growth rainforest, which contained trees over 350 years old, burned for the first time in living memory. Climate change is also a threat to soil biodiversity, since climate change increases the likelihood of soil erosion. When soil life is damaged beyond recovery, it results in desertification, which is where soil loses all soil structure. Soil subject to desertification is characterized by low levels of Soil Organic Matter (SOM), and an inability to support plant life.

Loss of Biodiversity Contributes to Climate Change

Thriving ecosystems help store carbon but can also help mitigate the effects of climate change. For instance, healthy wetlands can help absorb rainfall and prevent excessive flooding. The death of the small soil life can also have a huge impact on climate change. For instance, rising heat will intensify the soil carbon cycle, increasing the release of carbon from the soil and turning it into a source of carbon emissions instead of the carbon sink that it could be. Fluctuation in temperature will also greatly affect SOM ability to absorb water, making flooding much worse and increasing the presence of pests. 

The  Scientific Steering Committee recently released a report outlining some of the key actions necessary to combat climate change and biodiversity loss at the same time. Some of these actions include: 

  • Stopping the loss and degradation of carbon- and species-rich ecosystems on land and in the ocean 
  • Restoring carbon- and species-rich ecosystems 
  • Increasing sustainable agricultural and forestry practices 
  • Eliminating subsidies that support local and national activities harmful to biodiversity 

How Regenerative Organic Agriculture Contributes to Biodiversity

Agricultural practices have traditionally not prioritized biodiversity. For instance, the lowland natural environment that may be maintained on agricultural lands are dismissively referred to as ‘waste sloughs’. Conventional farmers will often remove these sloughs whenever possible to make for more streamlined cultivation, even though these lowlands are naturally prone to flooding and marsh-like conditions.

As such, currently global agriculture is responsible for 80 percent of global deforestation, making it one of the leading cause of biodiversity loss. Biodiversity has also proven an issue on the farm as well, since standard agricultural practices including chemical inputs and soil degradation have led to a loss of biodiversity over and below the soil. 

Feeding people at an affordable rate will always be important but we must learn how to do so without compromising the environment. Regenerative organic agriculture has shown that this balance is possible, since it works with these natural systems instead of against them. There are two factors to consider when trying to promote biodiversity. Resilience is an ecosystem’s ability to maintain equilibrium when faced with external stressors and Stability is how quickly an ecosystem recovers from damage or disruption to its regular function. 

Regenerative Organic Agriculture puts an emphasis on having areas of semi-natural environments like hedges, corridors or structurally rich meadows, which offer important habitat opportunities for animals like birds, insects and rare plant species not usually seen on farms. As a result, organic and regenerative farms have been found to have a 30 percent higher species richness level and 50 percent higher species abundance. 

Despite fears that the presence of more animals will increase pests, studies have actually found that a diversity of flora and fauna helps to keep pests in check. The presence of other living organisms forces community evenness, preventing any single population of pests to become dominate. On the flip side, removing biodiversity from a farm’s environment encourages the presences of pests since it creates a system with zero competition and easy access to an endless supply of a single food source.  

There are many other ways that farmers can improve off-farm biodiversity including: 

  • Rotational grazing practices allow land to rest for long periods of time. Studies have found that many small animals like birds and insects will make use this resting land as food sources and habitat. 
  • Incorporating agroforestry and permaculture into farms 
  • Limit the cultivation of lowland areas, consider incorporating shelter-belts, hedgerows and corridors into the land instead
  • Limit the use of biodiversity stressors such as agrochemicals and the fragmentation of habitats
  • Restoration of native plant communities and expanded use of native grasses in grazing, which can help promote coexistence with the other wildlife   

Farmers can also improve their soil biodiversity through the following techniques: 

  • Limit tilling to help rebuild soil organic matter 
  • Keep the ground covered as much as possible through using cover crops will prevent water pollution and improve soil organic matter 
  • The application of organic matter to the soil, such as crop stubble, supports greater populations of surface feeding creatures including earthworms.

Final Thoughts

Losing our biodiversity will mean the loss of something immeasurably valuable, killing off some of the oldest and greatest allies of humanity. These are the organisms who have fed us, sheltered us, given us the air we breathe and the water we drink. Every relationship requires give and take, when we take care of biodiversity, it will take care of us. Regenerative organic agricultural practices are how farmers can value and cultivate that relationship. Up until now in this series, we’ve focused primarily on motives behind regenerative organic agriculture but now we are going to discuss how to get things started and the practices that make the biggest environmental impact. Check out our next article to learn more:

This knowledge article is part of our Organic Climate Solutions campaign. Check out OCO’s Organic Climate Solutions campaign, funded in part by the Government of Canada, to learn more about how farmers can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and be part of the climate solution.

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