Biodiversity Loss: A Crisis for Food Systems and Life on Earth

Posted on Tuesday, 9 May 2023 under Stories

The Earth contains an incredible variety of life, from the diversity of species to the range of genetic differences within species. Biodiversity is the basis of life on Earth. It is also essential for our agriculture and food systems. Biodiversity loss, however, is a crisis occurring at an unbelievable rate. Earth’s rapid loss of biodiversity threatens both natural ecosystems and food and agricultural systems.

Renowned scientist, environmentalist, and activist Vandana Shiva says, “The failure to understand biodiversity and its many functions is at the root of the impoverishment of nature and culture.”

The WWF Living Planet Report 2020 presents a frightening picture of the rate of biodiversity loss. The authors write, “Biodiversity is fundamental to human life on Earth, and the evidence is unequivocal – it is being destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history […] Seventy-five percent of the Earth’s ice-free land surface has already been significantly altered, most of the oceans are polluted, and more than 85% of the area of wetlands has been lost.”

As Paul C. West of Project Drawdown describes, the crises of climate change and biodiversity are not independent. The issues can be tackled simultaneously, with solutions benefitting both the climate and biodiversity. Food systems play a central role in biodiversity loss in more ways than one. While industrial agriculture is partly responsible for biodiversity loss, healthy, resilient, regenerative, and diverse food systems can contribute to making solutions possible.

It is important to recognize that the crisis of biodiversity loss is inextricable from colonization, both past and present. The current crisis has been driven by colonial violence against Indigenous peoples and territories, the dispossession of Indigenous land, and the erasure of traditional ecological knowledge and practices.

While Indigenous peoples comprise only 5% of the world’s population, they protect 80% of the remaining biodiversity on Earth.

As Indigenous Climate Action asserts, the rights and knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples are critical for developing climate solutions. Recognition of and support for their efforts in protecting biodiversity is too often ignored. Acknowledgement and respect for Indigenous land rights and aspirations for their own land agency must be at the forefront of solutions to biodiversity loss.⁠

Agriculture & Biodiversity

Our food systems rely on biodiversity, meaning that one of the most immediate threats of biodiversity loss is an inability to feed ourselves.

At the same time, however, agriculture can be a significant driver of biodiversity loss. Agricultural extensification, the process by which ‘wild’ land is turned into farmland, destroys natural habitats and biodiverse ecosystems. Industrial agriculture’s reliance on monocropping, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers also impacts biodiversity.

When looking at the interaction between agriculture and biodiversity, it is important to consider agrobiodiversity and natural ecosystem biodiversity.

Agrobiodiversity or cultivated biodiversity refers to the planting and raising of different varieties and species of plants and animals on farms. During the 20th century, over 90 percent of crop varieties vanished from our food systems. This disappearance was in large part driven by the aggressive expansion of industrial agriculture across the planet.

A handful of chemical companies dominate the global seed industry. Just four companies control more than 60 percent of the worldwide seed market.

Along with a plethora of other reasons why such consolidation in the seedy industry is concerning, Kristina Hubbard describes in an article published by Civil Eats how one of the most critical dangers is making plant genetics inaccessible to public researchers, farmers, and independent breeders. Limiting access to genetics contributes to a loss of diversity of seeds in agriculture and ecosystems, reducing the sustainability and resiliency of our food systems.

Protecting seed biodiversity through breeding and sourcing seeds locally gives farmers a chance to adapt to climate change. It also allows them to choose varieties from a range of seeds best suited for their specific growing conditions and production needs.

Biodiversity that exists in natural ecosystems is also critical to this conversation.

Land and sea use change, partly because of habitat loss and degradation driven by industrial agriculture, is a leading cause of biodiversity loss.

Stopping the destruction of habitats and ecosystems is crucial for reducing biodiversity loss, and sustainable food systems have an important role to play. Reducing food waste and adopting plant-rich diets can have a significant impact in part because they can reduce land clearing for agriculture. Limiting the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can also reduce the destruction of ecosystems.

Both agrobiodiversity and natural ecosystem biodiversity are necessary for the diversity of life on the planet to be sustained.

Many BC farmers, seed producers, gardeners and community groups, are doing incredible work strengthening our local seed system, increasing farmland biodiversity and protecting ecosystem health. Farmers and ranchers can incorporate biodiversity into the way food is grown, making our food system more earth-friendly and resilient. Sustainable food systems can also protect wildlife habitats and healthy ecosystems.