Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Something that should be more worrying than COVID-19

Insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times, and are essential to the ecosystems humanity depends upon. They pollinate plants, are food for other creatures and recycle nature’s waste.

Damian Carrington, Environment editor, The Guardian, 24 April 2020

Nearly two years ago Alloporus first noted some worrying research on the decline of insects in Europe. with the key finding

More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas

Hallman et al (2017)

Alloporus’ comment was this

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase the risk to our already precarious food security.

At around the same time this post and research came out, two US researchers returned to a forested conservation reserve in Puerto Rico after 35 years and this is what they said…

We compared arthropod biomass in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest with data taken during the 1970s and found that biomass had fallen 10 to 60 times. Our analyses revealed synchronous declines in the lizards, frogs, and birds that eat arthropods.

They published their results in a peer-reviewed journal of the US National Academy of Sciences

Lister, B. C., & Garcia, A. (2018). Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(44), E10397-E10406.

The declines the authors put down to climate. It was too hot too often for the ground-dwelling invertebrates creating an upwards cascade through the food web.

In Europe insecticide use and habitat change, in a rainforest, climate change. Either way a serious problem.

Just to make sure this was not just an isolated result, Roel van Klink of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, together with colleagues from around Germany and Russia completed a meta-analysis and

‘compiled data from 166 long-term surveys across 1,676 globally distributed sites and confirmed declines in terrestrial insects, albeit at lower rates than some other studies have reported and concluded that ‘Patterns of variation suggest that local-scale drivers are likely responsible for many changes in population trends, providing hope for directed conservation actions.’

So it’s happening. Roughly 25% declines in insects across the board in a generation, with insects faring only slightly better in nature reserves than outside protected areas.

The conclusion, terrestrial insects are declining in numbers and variety and, as is typical for nature, this loss is patchy, occurs at differing rates and from multiple causes.

Klink and his colleagues took hope from this result. You can see why. If climate change was the cause everywhere, then there is a serious global catastrophe in the offing where the rates of decomposition and nutrient transfer are altered across a wide range of biomes and habitats affecting many land uses, especially primary production.

This would not be about species loss in the way it is for the koala. A cute thing that we like to see in the zoo and maybe take a selfie with one held up by a zookeeper, the cuddly critter that might become extinct. This is about the loss of function, loss of ecosystem services that we cannot do without or easily replace.

Instead, Klink and his colleagues found multiple, often local causes. This they interpret as a solvable problem. Conservation and restoration efforts could help local populations recover.

As regular readers will know, Alloporus has to work hard to be this optimistic.

Until the economy through the supply chains feels the hit of the loss of services little will be done. The efforts of the few with the koala saving gene will be epic, they will try their best, but it will not be enough.

If lockdown with its boredom, ingenuity and the appearance of clean air all around the place tells us anything, it should be that we can survive on relatively little.

Only part of that little has to be food and water.

Imagine lockdown with the supermarket shelves empty of food. That would put toilet paper shortages into perspective for us.

It is trite to say it, and sad that it has to be said again and again, but it is true — nature matters to our very existence.


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A solution to biodiversity loss

A solution to biodiversity loss

Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (UN-IPBES) wrote a piece incredulous as to why we are ignoring biodiversity loss when…

It is central to development, through food, water and energy security. It has significant economic value, which should be recognised in national accounting systems. It is a security issue in so far as loss of natural resources, especially in developing countries, can lead to conflict. It is an ethical issue because loss of biodiversity hurts the poorest people, further exacerbating an already inequitable world. And it is also a moral issue, because we should not destroy the living planet.

Robert Watson

In short, biodiversity has near uncountable economic, ethical, and moral value and its loss places everyone’s security at risk.

This is all true.

Only the following requirements described by the FAO, a sister agency to IPBES, are also true.

In order to maintain human food supply at or close to demand, global food production will have to increase by an average of 2% per annum across all commodities, but especially grains and meat, for the next 30 years.

Food & Agriculture Organisation

In short, a second agricultural revolution.

Whilst Robert Watson’s statement that biodiversity “is central to development, through food, water and energy security” the scale of that development — 2% per annum for 30 years — will inevitably put biodiversity at risk.

Alright. This is a difficult conundrum, a wicked problem even.

The resource with great value must be mobilised to keep everyone secure and in doing so that resource is depleted.

It is time to accept that this is wicked and try to find solutions.

Here is a simple one.

By 2025, increase soil carbon levels by 1% in all soils.

The only places where you shouldn’t try to do this is where the soil is inherently or no longer capable of retaining another 1% of carbon.

Everywhere else do what you can to raise the level of soil carbon. This means more ground cover, deeper-rooted perennials, restoration and rehabilitation of natural vegetation in and on the margins of the production systems, shifts to less intensive cropping systems, minimum or zero tillage wherever possible, capture and return of organic wastes and by-products,

What would happen?

Well, around 15.5 gigatons of C would be sequestered into soil organic matter. That is equivalent to 173% of annual greenhouse gas emissions of 33.1 billion tCO2e in 2018, not a panacea for climate change because it would be a one off, but very useful.

Source: Ontl, T. A. & Schulte, L. A. (2012) Soil carbon storage. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):35

But that’s not the real benefit.

Runoff would decrease and water use efficiency of vegetation would improve due to better soil structure and water retention.

Nutrient use efficiency would increase because soil carbon, especially soil organic carbon, drives the soil biology that mediates most nutrient exchange between soil and plant roots.

So overall agricultural production would increase. Not by the 2% per annum for 30 years that we need to feed the world but part the way there, but close enough for the shortfall to be made covered by intensification and innovation.

Biodiversity would benefit too. Perhaps not enough to save the iconic species, that will need complementary conservation actions of the type proposed for nearly a century, but enough to maintain the core of biodiversity services that impact global security.

Why not people?

Please post answers to why not.


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Eat your greens while you can

Eat your greens while you can

Many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species and ecosystem levels are in decline. The proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing. Overall, the diversity of crops present in farmers’ fields has declined and threats to crop diversity are increasing.

FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

This banal quote comes from the web summary of a critical FAO Report on The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture.

It is bad people.

Biodiversity loss is not just about Andean condors, orangutans, koalas and rhinos, as important as these iconic creatures are, it is also about a myriad of plants, microbes and invertebrate animals, and especially insects, that actually make nature what it is and, crucially, allow nature to provide for us.

Alloporus has banged on about this for ages. Blue in the face kind of stuff. Here are a few:

They have bored faithful readers witless. And the message still holds.

Biodiversity loss is bad for humans.

This recent message from the FAO is a little more subtle. It refers to the loss of biodiversity in the diversity that humans have created over generations of artificial selection. This is the diversity we get from humans playing god. Think chihuahuas and great Danes, sausage dogs and schnauzers. Only it also applies to crops and livestock.

We made it and now we are getting rid of it.

Let’s back up a little and ask why we made genetic, species and ecosystem diversity in agricultural systems in the first place.

Well right from the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago it was clear that wild varieties of grass were never going to deliver enough grain and wild cattle were way too unruly for the herd boys to cope. Better options were needed.

Initially through trial and error and later through the wonders of more formal selective breeding, farmers were able to choose crops and varieties that were best suited to the specific conditions on their farm and run livestock that would breed well and grow fat without squishing the shepherd.

It did not matter if that was in the highlands of Scotland or southern Sudan, there were suitable beasts and ideal crops.

This was humans creating variety for their own ends. Selecting the best production system possible. And for a few thousand years this meant the creation of all sorts of efficient breeds and crop types that became familiar to local communities. It helped to create distinctive cuisines and trade in the items that couldn’t be grown locally, spices being the most famous example.

Then two inventions changed everything.

The first was mechanised agriculture.

This meant ploughs that would never tire and fertilizers that made it possible to grow crops that unimproved soil could not support. Ubiquitous energy also meant we could synthesize and deliver pesticides and herbicides whenever they were needed.

The second was that we figured out genetics and how to use this to rapidly select for optimal varieties that could use the tilled soil and fertilizer to deliver the best possible yields.

It was possible to make serious money from agriculture if you could harness these breakthroughs and scale them up. So we did. We tilled the fields and spread fertilisers, then planted fewer and fewer types of crop. The ones that gave the best yields and market prices: corn, wheat, rice and potatoes.

This production we converted into more people.

Agriculture created diversity to ensure food production was possible almost everywhere. Fossil fuel energy homogenised production for high yield crops on the best soils in the most benign climates and squeezed the market.

No problem surely. What is the FAO going on about? We have more food than ever and in most places, it is as cheap as chips.

Well, what happens if the handful of species that make up the bulk of production are hit with a disease or what if the climate changes in the main grain growing regions?

If the production system is diverse then it can adapt to these events shifting readily between crops not affected by plague or drought. If the system is simple, it is far less resilient to change.

More importantly, if these crops and varieties from ancient genetic stock are lost, there is nothing for the geneticists to latch on to and engineer their way out of a production crisis.

This brings us back to biodiversity proper. It is the resilience of diverse systems that is most valuable to humanity, not the presence or not of iconic species. We have to have as much genetic, species and ecosystem diversity as possible if only as a reserve for future options should things go sour.

There is great irony in the FAO report.

Humans first create and then destroy diversity. That is a hoot.

That we are doing it as blindly as we eradicate what nature created makes you want to cry.

Insects

Insects

All around the world there are entomologists, people who study insects. We should be very proud of these fine folk for without their understanding it would be harder to manage many diseases transmitted by insects, resolve many pathogens, figure out how to assist insects pollinate crops and, most importantly, support insects and their invertebrate cousins maintain soil fertility.

Then there are insect people you might know about. The pest control folk who make sure the fly spray kills the flies and not us.

Sounding a bit posh and, dare we say a little ivory tower, ‘entomologist’ usually refers to the researchers who gather the data and sift through it to find evidence for the good, bad and ugly on the insects that share our spaces. So we can listen to them with some confidence. Not only are they spending their days with ‘bugs’, yuck, they are also the right kind of skeptic using the numbers to find inference.

Lately the number of insects observed by entomologists are in decline. This is not because the entomologists are getting lazy, spending more time watching TV than setting malaise traps or peering down microscopes, but because there are fewer insects around to be studied.

A recent publication confirmed from long-term trapping data in 63 German nature reserves, what many have casually observed in many parts of the world. Insect numbers are going down. And not just by a little bit, they are plummeting.

Hallmann C.A., Sorg M., Jongejans E., Siepel H., Hofland N., Schwan H., Stenmans W., Müller A., Sumser H., Hörren T., Goulson D., de Kroon H. (2017) More than 75% decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE, 12(10), eo185809

Three quarters in a generation.

If such a collapse had happened to the Dow Jones the sky would have fallen in. Imagine trying to survive on a quarter of your wages you earned when you started out. Heaven forbid if the defence budget from the 1990s was reduced by all those billions, how scared and vulnerable would we feel?

“Not a problem” the observant reader cries out. “The crawling insects will simply fill the space left by the loss of the flying ones, that’s what you ecology types tell us all the time.”

Perhaps.

Equally a loss in numbers does not necessarily mean a loss of function. Pollination only needs one bee to transfer pollen from stamen to stigma. Fewer mosquitos has to be a good thing and those beetle larvae can’t be doing that much to soil when we have fertilisers.

It is always very easy to play the ostrich. Only they are remarkable and very dumb birds.

When an observation so dramatic and material to so many key ecological processes becomes known we dismiss it at our peril. If we ignore these numbers just because we like the idea of fewer midges at summer evening picnics without looking deeper to find out what is going on, we increase risk to our already precarious food security.

We need to enable our entomologists to find out why the numbers went down and if the decline is going to affect the key ecosystem services we rely on.

Or, of course, we could ignore them and buy more submarines.

Real numbers

Real numbers

Recently Alloporus lamented in an incredulous post the fake news that is too often a part of the conservation story about the return of an extinct species. An obvious impossibility, but spin it fast enough and the whine turns into a noise you want to hear.

Well, there is a recent counterpoint to this story that talks about the real numbers behind the sorry state of the Earth’s species.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has recently published a major assessment on the health of the world’s species that comes from over 120 cooperating countries. It’s not good folks for pretty much everything is in decline.

The specific numbers can be cherry-picked based on your own interest but from elephants to soils everything is falling in quality and quantity as risks rise. The real headline is that these trends are recorded in double-digit percentages. We are not talking about a little bit of loss at the margins, this is one in four (25%) or three in five (60%) type effects.

Quotes like

25,821 plant and animal species of 91,523 assessed for the 2017 “Red List” update were classified as “threatened”

means that 28% of the assessed species on the Red List are threatened with extinction, pretty darn close to a third.

And it’s not all about rapid human population growth in the developing world when you see

Soil erosion has affected 25 percent of agricultural land in the European Union

So even where we can apply the technological and supply chain efficiencies of mature economies we are still degrading the place… a lot, a quarter in this example.

Just think now about the Bush stone curlew fake news. It is meaningless in the light of the reality. Even the faint hope it might bring if it were true, the saving of one species is only a brief ‘feel good’ in the bigger picture.

It is time to be rational. We need to fess up to the reality that not only has the horse bolted, but the barn doors are off their hinges.

Fortunately, there is still some habitat to save through smarter resource and land use decisions. Much more habitat and soil to rehabilitate with more sensible land management practices. And maybe even a few species to save.

But the reality is that this has to be done whilst at the same time feeding and raising the living standards of 7.5 billion souls growing at 250,000 a day. Because if this fundamental need is ignored in favour of a conservation ideal, the resources will be taken anyway. It has to be about all values with the humans ones up front.

This is an unpleasant reality but even a limited understanding of human psychology and history tells us that people come first as individuals and then as tribes. It’s what gave us our numerical success and is as unstoppable as the tide. This basic biology has only one outcome.

The real numbers are only going to get worse. This is the truth.

The hope we have is that it should be possible to feed, clothe and house (and put online) all the people currently here (and those about to arrive) whilst still retaining some of the Earth’s innate heritage through smart choices. But there is a big if. Reversing declines and saving some of the best bits will happen, if, and only if, we accept that this is multi-value problem with no one value able to preclude all others.

Crudely this means that production cannot exist without some conservation values and, critically, vice versa. We have to get multiple values from the remaining natural resource base or the real numbers will get an awful lot worse.