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 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.