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World food supply relies on biodiversity, now declining at a disturbing pace

Our collective choices undermine security, too: Of 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, just nine account for two-thirds of global crop production.

photo of wheat field being harvested
Of some 6,000 plant species under cultivation for food, nearly everything we eat comes from fewer than 200 of these, and two-thirds of all crop production comes from just nine: sugar cane, corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beets and cassava.
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

A fresh survey of biodiversity as it contributes to world food production finds many troubling declines, both in the variety of plants and animals raised to be eaten, and across the wide range of other species — insects especially — that play critical roles in agriculture.

The work was sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which calls it the first effort to survey biodiversity loss on a country-by-country basis and collate the findings into a comprehensive global picture.

Its conclusions, published last Friday, stop well short of a doomsday forecast. But the trend line, as summarized in FAO’s summary of the findings, is sobering enough:

There is a real risk of the plant and animal species that provide our food, fuel and fiber (as well as the many animals, insects and micro-organisms that make up crucial parts of the food chain) disappearing for good.

The drivers here are familiar: ecological breakdown due to various forms of development (including large-scale agriculture). Expansion of industrial-scale agriculture using unsustainable methods, including intensive application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The pressures of population growth and rising resource consumption. Overharvesting of fish, game and other wild or non-farmed foods. The poisoning of water, soil and air with non-agricultural industrial toxins.

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And, as always, human-driven changes in climate patterns. These are considered in a grouping called “abiotic” hazards: drought, flood, storms, earthquakes and tsumanis, and it is what you might call the background changes, rather than isolated extreme events, that raise the greater concern.

Of all the crop damage and losses attributable to these factors, flooding had the most impact (65 percent) with storms running second (20 percent) and drought coming in third (14 percent). For livestock production, the proportions were reversed: 86 percent of losses were attributable to drought, 9 percent to flooding, 4 percent to storms.

map showing changes in soil biodiversity
Source: European Union and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization
A comparative map of threats to soil biodiversity from factors including agricultural intensity, pollution, erosion, fire and climate change.
Storms had a larger impact on fish production, both from harvest of wild species and from aquaculture, accounting for 38 percent of damage and losses, second only to flooding (44 percent).

Non-climate factors loom larger

However, the slow-moving changes attributable to climate generally were considered to be less significant factors, so far, then non-climatic factors — including “inappropriate agricultural practices” — in reducing biodiversity for agriculture, or BFA:

According to the countries that contributed to the report, changes in land and water use and management is the driver that most negatively affects the regulatory and supporting functions of ecosystems. For example, ecosystems help to regulate climate, filter air and water and safeguard soil fertility. They also support plants and animals by providing diverse habitats. These functions are all severely threatened by irresponsible changes in land and water management.

The loss of traditional lifestyles as a result of population growth, urbanization, the industrialization of agriculture and food processing is also negatively affecting BFA and the maintenance of traditional knowledge related to it.

Besides raising the risk that critical balances will be upset, we’ve also reduced the resilience of our food system in various ways — including our collective choices of what to eat.

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For example, the report finds that of some 6,000 plant species under cultivation for food, nearly everything we eat comes from fewer than 200 of these, and two-thirds of all crop production comes from just nine: sugar cane, corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beets and cassava.(Even the 6,000 is just a tiny fraction of the world’s variety of vascular plants, a grouping with some 300,000 species.)

The researchers found it difficult to arrive at parallel figures on animals raised for food production.

Because so much effort has gone into selective breeding and other manipulations, records are kept not by species but by breed. To understand the complexity this presents, consider: Of the 8,803 breeds counted by FAO, 7,745 are classed as “local breeds,” meaning present in only one country.

So tracking, say, cattle production means counting and then collating the results across borders — far more difficult than tracking corn without regard to whether it comes from Canada or Cameroon. Unsurprisingly, data gathering is inconsistent and updating is irregular, especially in the world’s developing regions.

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Still, some reliable conclusions can be drawn, and they are not encouraging. As of last March, a total of 594 local breeds had gone extinct in the preceding 25 years. Of the survivors, about one-quarter of breeds were at risk of extinction, while 7 percent appeared to be unthreatened. However, for two-thirds of breeds, no status could be determined.

As for fish, the report found that 60 percent of species tracked by FAO are the sustainable limit of harvest, while another one-third are already overfished.

Declines in wild foods, too

Although hunting and foraging don’t contribute a lot to the North American diet — the survey turned up too little data for meaningful comparison — the situation is different in much of the rest of the world, again with some big uncertainties:

Countries report that 24 percent of almost 4,000 wild food species — mainly plants, fish and mammals — are decreasing in abundance, but the proportion of wild foods in decline is likely to be even greater as the state of more than half of the reported wild food species is unknown. The largest number of wild food species in decline appear in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Asia-Pacific and Africa, the report notes. However, this could be a result of wild food species being more studied and/or reported on in these countries than in others.

And, in general, North America has experienced the consequences of biodiversity declines to a lesser degree than most other parts of the world, in part because these impacts can be blunted by wealth and the flexibility it affords.

While all regions report the alteration or loss of habitats as major threats, other major threats identified are: overexploitation, hunting and poaching in Africa; deforestation in Asia; deforestation, changes in land use and agricultural intensification and expansion in Europe and Central Asia; overexploitation, pests, diseases and invasive species in Latin America and the Caribbean; and overexploitation in the Near East and North Africa.

The report acknowledges that efforts are under way around the world to address the risks raised by biodiversity loss. But it finds them limited, inconsistent and generally inadequate to the scale of the problem:

Most countries have put in place legal, policy and institutional frameworks for the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity as a whole. Policies addressing food and agriculture are reported to be increasingly based on ecosystem, landscape and seascape approaches. However, legal and policy measures explicitly targeting wild foods or components of associated biodiversity and their roles in supplying ecosystem services are not widespread.

Constraints to the development and implementation of effective policy tools include a lack of awareness among policy-makers and other stakeholders of the importance of BFA, in particular wild foods and associated biodiversity, to livelihoods and food security. There is a large knowledge gap in terms of how existing policies are affecting these components of biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide.

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The full report, “The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture,” runs to 579 pages and can be downloaded here.